Columns » Opinion

Putting the “propaganda” in context

In an interview last May, former University President Shirley Tilghman told me she doesn’t believe everything the University says about itself.

“If you start believing all your propaganda and believing that we’re perfect, you will fail as the president,” she said.

Everything we do at The Daily Princetonian is guided by the belief that the truth shouldn’t be the exclusive possession of the people who “need” to know it in order to make policy and advance their interests.

We all deserve an objective account of the University’s successes and shortcomings so that we are better placed to perpetuate the good and reform the imperfect.

And yet I can’t count the number of times during my year as Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Prince’ when someone has tried to negotiate with me not to run a story that portrays them or someone they represent in a way they perceive to be unfavorable. I’ve also lost track of the number of complaints I’ve received claiming a story we’ve published is unfairly negative toward one of the parties involved.

While it is important for readers to distinguish between a biased story with an agenda and a fair story that brings unfavorable information to light, engaging in these conversations will always be one of the most crucial components of the Editor-in-Chief’s job. People and organizations seek press coverage that advances their interests and try to avoid coverage that does not. That’s nothing new, and editors before me have had hundreds of the same types of conversations.

But what is new is the ease with which source-produced information and content — what Tilghman would call “propaganda” — can be shared directly with its intended audience. On Facebook and Twitter, posts from news organizations are mixed in with messages straight from the source. The increasing popularity of social media has shattered the virtual monopoly the press once had on the spread of information, and it has made it easier than ever for powerful people and institutions to spread their messages, unchecked by a pesky third party like a newspaper. Many sources even have greater reach than news organizations: Princeton University, for example, has 100 times more Facebook likes and 15 times more Twitter followers than the ‘Prince’ does.

Some sources and readers correctly understand this source-produced information as positively spun competition to the objective press narrative, while others truly think it is the only information that needs to be out there. From what I can glean from reader comments and casual discussions, news consumers are becoming more deferential to straight-from-the-source information as they are exposed to it more frequently

This is true beyond Princeton, of course. To the extent that disruption and changes in communication methods prompt news organizations to be innovative in the ways they tell stories and engage with readers, these changes are a net positive. But to the extent they allow sources promoting their own interests to bypass objective sources of information and reach their audiences directly, they pose significant dangers.

Throughout my tenure, we’ve set out not to contradict our sources’ “propaganda” with “negative” stories, but rather to complete the stories our sources share themselves. We’ve published the results of a previously unreleased University survey on students’ experiences with sexual assault, described the tendency of athletes to cluster in similar majors and examined the biography of a new president whose image was being carefully crafted and protected.

While we received substantial criticism in all of these instances — we have been called “sensationalist” and “intrusive” and criticized for “making Princeton look bad” — on the whole readers appreciated our objective use of hard facts to put the “propaganda” in context and complete the story.

Readers have also been openly appreciative of our attempts to share the truth during breaking news events. During the Nassau Hall gunshot scare, traffic to our site maxed out our server capacity before the University had sent out a single alert. During the December gas leak, an employee tweeted, “So nice of Princeton to alert the employees!! Find out from the news!!”

I’m no expert on emergency notification policy, so I’m not sure if the University’s responses were appropriate in these cases or not. But these responses indicate that people affiliated with Princeton crave information about Princeton.

Those who know this information — sometimes, but not always, for good reasons — often decide to withhold it. This makes it so crucial for news organizations to provide the complete story without bias or deference to any party’s strategic interests, especially since social media and sponsored content have given readers more frequent and direct contact with officials’ “propaganda.”

Tilghman was right: It’s important for officials not to believe all their propaganda. But it’s also important for us, as students, citizens and news consumers, to be skeptical of the information the University and other powerful institutions publish themselves. And as the news organization covering this campus, we will continue to work tirelessly to make sure the community has the information it needs.

Luc Cohen, a Wilson School major from New York, NY, is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at luccohen@princeton.edu.

comments powered by Disqus