Teaching about propaganda: An examination of the historical roots of media literacy.

Contemporary propaganda is ubiquitous in our culture today as public relations and marketing efforts have become core dimensions of the contemporary communication system, affecting all forms of personal, social and public expression. To examine the origins of teaching and learning about propaganda, we examine some instructional materials produced in the 1930s by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA), which popularized an early form of media literacy that promoted critical analysis in responding to propaganda in mass communication, including in radio, film and newspapers. They developed study guides and distributed them widely, popularizing concepts from classical rhetoric and expressing them in an easy-to-remember way. In this paper, we compare the popular list of seven propaganda techniques (with terms like “glittering generalities” and “bandwagon”) to a less well-known list, the ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis. While the seven propaganda techniques, rooted in ancient rhetoric, have endured as the dominant approach to explore persuasion and propaganda in secondary English education, the ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis, with its focus on the practice of personal reflection and life history analysis, anticipates some of the core concepts and instructional practices of media literacy in the 21st century. Following from this insight, we see evidence of the value of social reflection practices for exploring propaganda in the context of formal and informal learning. Crowdsourcing may help create increased informational clarity for consumers because ambiguous, incomplete, blurry and biased information actually inspires us to have conversations, share ideas, and listen to each other as a means to find truth.

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