Mass Media and Propagation of Political Rhetoric


The inception of rhetorical incidents in communication can be traced back in the ancient Greece, from where the political oratory evolved to become the cornerstone of the very discipline of Political rhetoric (Frobish T, 2000).Authors like Bruce Herzberg and Patricia Bizzel have noted that “the physical setting of political rhetorical performance remained principally unaltered, with the political icons speaking loudly and proudly in the proximity of their anonymous audience” (Bizzell, P & Bruce, H 1990).

Paul Shaver, in his electronic Journal of Communication, contends that “the contemporary rhetoric theory and research could be utilized in explaining or understanding the nature of the language of the mass media” (Paul S, 1995, Mass Communication as Political Rhetoric).Shaver elaborates that because of the pervasive nature of the mass media communication in the modern society, it has become indispensable that the nature of the mass media be analyzed expansively. It is only through realization of the language of the media that further legitimate researches can be conducted in identifying “negative influences and manipulative capabilities of the media discourse” (Paul S, 1995, Mass Communication as Political Rhetoric).

In agreement with the views of Paul Shaver is Marshall McLuhan who held “the contemporary public discourse is actually dominated by the mass media communication processes, with severe restraints on the average minded individuals” who participate in the public and political debates through an interactive communication paradigm (McLuhan M, 1994, Understanding the Media).

The Thesis Statement

This paper seeks to examine how the mass media can generally be perceived as liable in the propagation of political rhetoric. The paper intends to focus on the salient role played by the mass media in the diffusion of political ideologies, opinions, agendas and propagandas. It also interested in finding out to what extent the propagation of political rhetoric have impacted either positively or negatively in the modern society, a society marred with political affairs and the quest for power and authority, exemplified by propagandas and political dogmas.

The Mass Media Defined

The concept “Media” is the plural of medium. What has often been referred to as “the Media” actually implies a diverse collection of practices, specific business interests, industries, audiences, constraints and channels of communication. The term mass media was coined along with that of mass communication back in the early 20th century, during the period of “emerging modern world” that was being built of the foundation of popular and industrialization (McQuail D, 2005).

In attempt to define the concept “Mass Media”, McQuail in his book titled, “Mass communication theory”, describes the term as “an organized means of communicating openly at a distance and to a large number of audience or receivers within a short space of time” (McQuail D, 2005).Paul Cobley and Adam Briggs, the authors of “Media and Communication Theory” defines the same as “the cultural industries, the channels of communication which produce and distribute songs, novels, newspapers, movies, internet services among other cultural products to a large number of audience”(Paul C, & Adam B,1998).

The definition of mass media may should not only be perceived to be the mechanical devices or gadgets that are utilized in the diffusion of information, ideas, knowledge and so on, but Johnston Steven notes it should also be understood to be composed of the institutions which utilize the machines and devices in propagating the messages (Johnston S,1997).

Mass Communication

The concept of Mass communication has been discussed to posses so many connotations which may not allow for a simplified, straight forward and an internationally recognized definition. Some authors have suggested that there is no clear distinction between mass media and mass communication, while on the other hand, others believe otherwise. These are manifestations that a précised definition of the concept “mass communication” could still be suffering from a crisis of identity (Bedford M, Martins, 2000). It is from this shortage identity that McQauil took to define the concept “mass communication” by separating the two terms that is, mass from communication, so that they can be defined independently to help understands the correlation between the two. McQauil defines the term mass to denote voluminous while communication is the understanding and sharing of meaning, the transmission and reception of messages (McQuail D, 2005).

Wahlstrom defines mass communication as “the process of communication that is aimed at a large and mostly differentiated audience, the whole process through which mass media industries reach their large audiences with their messages” (Jamieson K,1988).

Rhetoric Communication

More or less like Mass communication, Rhetoric communication is yet another concept that has attracted numerous denotations assigned to it. The definitions presented in this paper may only be a fraction of them, and merely for the purposes of achieving the objectives of this paper. However, a sense of commonness in meaning is underscored in many of the scholastic definitions of rhetoric communication. But before we can understand what rhetoric communication or even political rhetoric may be, it is critical that we pay some attention at what others have said about the term “rhetoric”.

First and foremost, Donald McCloskey defined “Rhetoric” as the process where by people makes use of language in accomplishing specific desires in their world (Donald M, 1985).It is “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that respond to symbols” (Kenneth B, 1945).Kenneth Burke further argues that “the most characteristic concern of rhetoric is in the manipulation of the believes of men for political ends”. He adds that the fundamental goal of rhetoric is in the utilization of language or words “the human agents to form some traits or to induce certain actions on other human agents” (Kenneth B, 1945).

Burke elaborates when something is rhetoric or has rhetorical motives, it “comes to lurk in every meaning however purely scientific its pretentions” (Kenneth B, 1945).In the presence of persuasion, there is often an attribute of persuasion and thus a rhetorical motive. And that “whenever there is a meaning, there will be an attribute of persuasion” (Kenneth B, 1945).In the mass media communication, persuasion is part of the game, therefore, the aspects of rhetorical motives are rampant in the mass media (Donald M, 1985).

Rhetoric may also be understood to be “a mode of altering and reshaping reality, not by the direct appliance of force to the object, but by the making of discourse which transforms reality through the propagation or mediation of s actions and thoughts” (Donald M, 1985).Furthermore, George Kennedy too informs us more about when we can talk of a rhetoric action. He contends that in a most general perception, “rhetoric can be identified with the energy inherent in the communication process, the emotional force that propels a speaker and the physical energy exerted in his or her utterances” (Kennedy G, 2009).

To Richard Weaver, “rhetoric is the creation of informed appétit ion for the good of the speaker rather than the source”. It may as well be delineated as “the instrumental use of language in which case, one person engages others in an exchange of symbols with the aim of accomplishing a specific goal or objective” (Richard W, 1950).

Having grasped a bit of knowledge on what is and what may not be regarded as rhetorical in nature, it is now appropriate to look into what “rhetoric communication” implies in the context of the mass media, and subsequently, consider when to talk of the propagation of “political rhetoric”.

Actually, all that have been discussed about the concept “rhetoric” amounts to what can generally be referred to as rhetoric communication. Rhetoric in itself is a communication driven action, with communication process being the foundation of propagating rhetorical messages. The rather too lean a distinction between rhetoric communication and rhetoric concept could be that communication is more of a process than the mere actions of fabricating symbols to convey an intended meaning. In communication, we are really concerned about how the message can reach the audience, other factors considers, while in rhetoric communication, the major concern is laid on how the message to be propagated will or should influence the mass audience pertinent to the mission intended to be achieved thereafter. And just like Harold Dwight Lasswell, an award winning political scientist, communication researcher and an American philosopher puts it, in communication, it is all about “to whom is the message directed, through which channel, and with what effects” (Harold D, 2003).

Propagation of Political Rhetoric

Historically, the mass media have closely been associated with politics in almost every aspect of it. Activities such as political campaigns, referendums, elections inclusive of many other public affairs have continuously been communicated through the mass media channels to the numerous and amorphous publics audience (Ball-Rockeach S,1998). Imagining a world without a radio, a to listen to when you wake up in the morning, or a newspaper to read to know about the unfolding affairs of your country, it would be a strange world we are certainly not used to (Bennet W, 1990).

Paul Lazarsfeld, having investigated into the effects of the mass media in political campaigns, noted that there was a paramount interrelationship between the mass media and the political affairs. In his findings, the media was used often to influence or manipulating the decisions and views of voters, opinions of leaders and their followers and in popularizing certain political leaders or groups, mostly those aliened to the status quo and the ruling elites (Lazarsfeld P, 1941).

The palpable state of co-existence between the mass media and political speakers makes it possible to perceive the mass media as responsible in the propagation of political rhetoric, where by the messages and political agendas are modified, perverted, and amplified to symbolically present news and information to the mass public audience, with the intention of persuading the audience to act or behave in ways favorable to certain political leaders, groups or interests (Cappella, J.N & Jamieson K.H ,1997).

Communication scholars have for long been interested in analyzing the complexity in the “symbol Universe” to AID the understanding of the human interactions (Mary S, 1996).In her work titled “The Theory and Practice of Political Communication Research”, Stuckey “presents an analysis of the consequences of the media symbolization in the understanding of political affairs” (Mary S,1996).

Stuckey holds that “leadership is often situational and therefore depends on the correlation that exists between the leaders and their followers” (Mary S, 1996).This is perpetuated via the use of symbolic words or language always “embedded in the political communication” (Mary S, 1996).

The modern mass media is in the forefront of propagating such symbols as to shape the views and perceptions of the public audience in relation to their political leaders. These behaviors amount to what may be qualified as political rhetoric. It involves the use of symbolical language and words channeled through the media instruments to the public domain, to reshape, redefine, misinform or even distort the general believe of the receivers about what they think concerning politicians (Chaffer, H. 1981). How and what the society thinks is thus structured by the mass media. This calls for yet another media responsibility common known as “the agenda setting role of the media”.

The media is believed to set the political agendas for the public audience. To understand this process, it is necessary that we discuss briefly on how the agenda setting theory of the mass media works. This is particularly more significant in this context, as it will help us understand at depth, how the mass media links political rhetoric and the public, the views of the political leaders and their followers, and the salient role played by the mass media in propagating political rhetoric (George K, 1991).

Agenda setting theory asserts that the mass media can be responsible in the creation of public agendas on typical issues (DeFleur M, 1970).It holds that the media informs the public on what to think about regarding the public and the political affairs (Althaus S.L &Tewkesbury D.T, 2002).

The theory of agenda setting was advanced by Donald Shaw and McComb Maxwell in their research study at Chapel Hills, North Carolina. The two researchers found that the most prevalent effect of the mass media was in its ability to mentally or psychologically shape and organize public affairs for the consumption of the public audience. They noted “the mass media may not be very successful in telling people what they should be thinking, but stunningly successful in telling the people what to think about” (McComb M, & Shaw D, 1977).

Shaw and McComb defined Agenda setting as “the creation of public awareness and concern of the salient issues by the mass media” (McComb M, & Shaw D, 1977). Also contributing significantly towards the study of the effects of mass media in shaping up public reality was Walter Lippmann, a renowned American Journalist. In his book titled, “Public Opinion”, Lippmann posited “the mass media has the ability to create images of events in the peoples minds”, terming them as “the pictures in our heads” created by the mass media (Lippmann W, 1922).

Mass Media in the Propagation of Rhetoric

News is something “new” in nature and peculiar in existence. They are those things that would grasp the attention of audience at one instance. Because of the very attractive nature of newsworthy events conveyed through the mass media channels, public receivers are vulnerable to the side effects of t news items they are fed by the media (Gitlin T, 1980).

During the process of information consumption, the public consumes even that information which is politically oriented to alter their understanding of the state of political affairs. Public speeches and political discourses held in their absence are embedded into the news items via the media channels into the public domain for public consumption (Gitlin T, 1980).What becomes the power of the media is thus its strategic capability to determine what newsworthy items reach the public. This is called gate keeping process (DeFleur M, 1970).The process which explain how the mass media filters news by only releasing partially what it believes is good for the public consumption is referred to as “gate-keeping theory” (Althaus S.L &Tewkesbury D.T, 2002).

Gate keeping is the process by which news passes through a given set of check-points before it finally hit the public domain (DeFleur M, 1970).Gate keeping theory asserts in the mass media, it is not always that information gotten or received by the public audience from the media is at all times original (Graber D, 1976).At least, some information are ignored, others are framed or altered to suit the need of the occasion, yet still, some are emphasized more than others (Graber D, 1976).

Its, however, important to note that gate-keeping theory may not only be narrowed to the mass media, but it can also apply in the public context (Graber D, 1976).Take the instances of field interviews. During an interview, the interviewee could be holding back certain critical information for personal reasons. Reporters will too be determining what, according to their professional judgments, is qualified to be newsworthy, and how those things not qualified as newsy can possibly be fabricated to become news, just incase of news scarcity anyway.

News reports from the field are forwarded to the copy editors desk, another checkpoint where the person responsible will be scrutinizing the report for style, grammar and language (Frobish, T., 2000 &, Murray, H, 1997.).The next checkpoint will possibly be at the editors senior desks desk, where space, placement and time of delivery is determined. All these, space, time and placement will influence how the news story will be perceived by the audiences of the media George K, 1991).

Generally, there is a notion that at least some information are important but are not conveyed to the public for certain reasons unknown to them. Possible reasons for not giving the public certain information may include the fear of threats from the State authorities regarding particular information, prejudices of the news editors in charge, influence from the top management in the media institution dictating to should be presented and what should be curtailed off the public , among others(Livingstone S,1994).

Communication researchers have also found “the news contents are presented within frame works of meaning which are derived from the way news are gathered and processed” (Graber D, 1976).Graber argues “news is typically and thematically framed for easier understanding”. It is therefore reasonable enough for the audience to employ the same framing paradigms used in the media in “their processing of incoming news” (Graber D, 1976).

The process of framing news stories has been termed as “news schemata”. News schemata are meant to provide a guideline to “the selection, relevance, and cognition of news items”. According to Graber, “a cognitive structure consists of an organized knowledge about situations and individuals that have been abstracted from the past incidents” (Graber D, 1976).

Literature Review

The problem of linking rhetoric to the common knowledge and understanding have been “one of the oldest and the most interesting in the history of mass media and political communication” (Frobish, T., 2000 &, Murray, H, 1997.). The contemporary stereotypical labels of rhetoric, being termed as “empty speeches or empty words”, can actually be reflected back to the ancient “radical division of the rhetoric from knowledge”. The division led to “the influential adherents within the rhetorical traditions most remarkable by Peter Ramus and Plato” (Althaus S.L &Tewkesbury D.T, 2002).

The division of rhetoric from knowledge “has strongly been associated with the enlightenment thinking about language”. It made the attempt of neutralizing and making language “a transparent medium” (Frobish, T., 2000 &, Murray, H, 1997.).For many centuries, philosophical arguments have continued to unfold, questioning “whether or not rhetoric and truth have any correlation whatsoever”. For instance, in the ancient Greece, “Sophists generally believed that human beings were not capable of determining between what rhetoric is and what the truth” (Althaus S.L &Tewkesbury D.T, 2002).They used logos “in determining what according to them was the best or the worst for the community”. One of the most renowned Sophists of the time was Protagoras. And as per the arguments of Protagoras, the speech analysis was the best measure on what was good or bad for the community, rather challenging the use of logos to determine the same (Althaus S.L &Tewkesbury D.T, 2002).

Plato was however against the views of the Sophists, he held that “rhetoric was simply too dangerous based on skill and common opinion”. To resolve this problem as he perceived it, Plato insisted on the use of methods that could bring out the truth and nothing less He discovered the use of “dialectical paradigm”, a method later came to shape the western philosophy about rhetoric (Frobish, T., 2000 &, Murray, H, 1997.).

In the 20th century, the philosophical view on rhetoric, knowledge and the mass media began to take a different twist. This change was facilitated by “the influence of “pragmatism and social constructionism”. To Robert Scott, “rhetoric was in fact epistemic and truth as, Plato held, was not really as a result of the central and objective set of facts, but was based on the prevailing situations at hand” (Kennedy G, 2009).Scott further elaborated “if a man believed in an ultimate truth and argues it out, he was only fooling himself by convincing himself of one argument among the many possible alternative options” (Kennedy G, 2009).Consequently to the stand taken by Scott, what is “truthful” may relatively be linked to the prior experiences, and to achieve such an objecti,rhetoric is necessary to provide “meaning “ to particular situations (Cappella, J.N & Jamieson K.H ,1997).

Investigation into the science of rhetoric and language have shown how difficult it can be separating between truth and rhetoric, and this has been termed as “epistemic rhetoric” (Kennedy G, 2009). In epistemic rhetoric, “communication among other interlocutors is fundamental in the creation of knowledge in a community” (Cappella, J.N & Jamieson K.H, 1997).

Other researchers in the same line of study have theorized “truth” to be “a mutual agreement amongst the members of the community” (Paul S, 1995, Mass Communication as Political Rhetoric). This, to my own opinion may seem more like an ethical code of conduct rather than “truth” anyway. Farrell Thomas was not to be left behind in these arguments. To him, “the importance of any social consensus was knowledge” (Cappella, J.N & Jamieson K.H, 1997).

Theoretical Perspectives

In the discipline of Rhetoric and political communication, elements of persuasion and culture as a medium of communication are considered to be the influencing factors in the exercise of powers (George K, 1991).David Lorenzo discusses extensively the aspect of persuasion in rhetoric and political communication, arguing that persuasion is actually one of the sources political powers and communication is indispensably needed to help in achieving the goals and objectives of such powers (Mary E,1996).

Both Aristotle and Plato held that in the process of communication, human beings can probably derive some powers from their language or words. To enable us understand elaborately the relationship between political rhetoric, the idea of persuasion in rhetoric communication, the message and the audience, Lorenzo clustered up political rhetoric into two major theoretical perspectives (Mary E, 1996).

First, Lorenzo talked about “the methodological foundation of behavioralism theory”. In this theory, it was argued “human beings are discrete individuals who respond to stimuli in their immediate environment” (Mary E, 1996).Under this theory of behavioralism, “a political message is perceived or rather understood like any other stimuli and therefore persuasion equals the effective transmission of the messages” (Mary E, 1996).

The second theoretical approach proposed by Lorenzo was the Aristotelian theory. This theory posited that “persuasion depends as much or more on what is said by the people rather than on how their words reach the eye or the ears of the receivers” (Mary E,1996).

Going by the presumptions of Aristotle, rhetoric implies “a systematic study of categories of appeals one can include in the substance of his or her message item” (George K, 1991).Basically, in the two theories, that is, the theory of behavioralism and Aristotelian rhetoric theory, relationship between the message and context of the messages are focused on.

For instance, Aristotelian rhetoric theory puts much emphasis on “analysis and description of the symbolic contours of the message in stated of discovering the message structures through which the actors pass them” (George K, 1991). Behavioralism theory pushes on “the aims and methodologies approaches applied in political communication, focusing on the phenomena of persuasion as a contextual act of power” (Gitlin T, 1980).Other theories trying to explain the relationship between political rhetoric, media, the message, and the receiver are “Literacy and “Anthropology theory”.

Studies into the effects of the mass media in society have also been one of the most paramount scholastic researches that have been conducted in the media history. One of the commonly reflected on of such research was that which was conducted by Albert Bandura back in the 1970s.Bandura investigated into the effects of the media violence on children exposed to the media i.e. television (Bandura, 1970, Social learning theory). In his “social learning theory”, Bandura posited that “media characters who serve as models for aggressive behavior may be attended to by viewers and depending upon whether the behaviors are rewarded or punished, would either inhibit or disinhibit imitation of the behaviors” (Bandura, 1970, Social learning theory).

According to Bandera’s theory of social learning, the society, precisely the youth, are more vulnerable to rhetoric or violent media programs which may contribute significantly in cultivating their behaviors as they grow into the adulthood age bracket (Bandura, 1970, Social learning theory). This theory has, however, not escaped the trap of criticisms. For instance, Gauntlet in 1995 asserted that in Bandera’s experiment on the effects of aggressive media programs on children, there could have been a possibility that the Children he used behaved aggressively after they were exposed to violent programs, not really because the programs had an impact on them, but rather, because they wanted to please the experimenter. This could also imply the children were only keen on following the “video instructions”, but not as “incentives to feel aggressive” (Ball-Research, 1998).

Rowell Huesmann, a communication expert and Professor at the University of Michigan, notes that “exposure to media rhetoric programs can cause young people to behave aggressively and may affect them in their adulthood later in life”. However, Jonathan Freedman, Psychological scientist from Toronto University, is not in agreement with Huesmann. To Jonathan, “there are no scientific evidence which show that watching rhetorical or aggressive media programs can yield into traits of violence in the people watching them later-on in their lives” (Ball-Research,1998).

Bandera’s theory is important in this context because it helps explain on the power and the effect of the media in the society. If the media possesses such powers as to make people believe what is not true to be true, or transform the behaviors of certain demographic segment in the society, then its apparent that propagation of political rhetoric into the society through the media could be at least harmful. This is, though, yet to be substantiated through a scientific research.


The journalistic truism that “when it bleeds it leads” may not really be justified if criticism against media coverage of political rhetoric are to be tolerated. As much as there have been a long lasting concern about the effect of rhetorical media programs in the society, concerns dating back to the days of Plato the Philosopher, there have also been an incessant urge on the media to continue informing the society with all that is in their best of interests and not otherwise (Gitlin T, 1980).In journalism, news should be something interesting all the time. This is a recognized news attribute in nearly every media institution (Gitlin T, 1980).

The concern of a few groups of individuals have been directed towards the side effects the propagation of political rhetoric, inflicting into the people some insignificant information. In this scenario, at least, “it seems untenable to argue that the public needs to here the truth after all and the mass media is responsible for fulfilling the need well placed. Besides, the use of political rhetoric in media coverage may serve as verifiable evidence, “depictions of public affairs in good taste, just like is done with other human attributes, either noble or ignoble” (George K, 1991).

Exposure to good media contents is, however, necessary, to help the society understand the role of political rhetoric in media coverage. Additionally, “news reports of unfolding political events can provide information to counter the confusion and alarm that commonly erupt in the public arenas” (George K, 1991).

Although “strong associations have been found between political rhetoric themed media and media biased reporting of news on politics, there is no conclusive evidence to show how political rhetoric in the media culture may lead to negative influences in the community”. And since it is impossible “to conduct randomized experiments in naturalistic settings to look at the effects of different types of political rhetoric on the behaviors of individuals in the society”, it also becomes unfeasible “to decode what it is in the media that is related to uninformed behaviors, and what kind of individuals are prone to the influences” (George K, 1991).

The media is believed to set the political agendas for the public audience. This helps in filtering what is and what is not good for the public consumption. The application of rhetoric in the media communication is part of the strategy that is used to in framing news, to make it free from political incitements and negative remarks. To understand this process, it may be critical necessary that we know how the media sets agenda and how the agenda setting theory of the mass media works. Political rhetoric (George K, 1991).


In conclusion, propagation of political rhetoric by the media has become indispensable. Trying to curtail the practice may seem like making an attempt to stifle with the freedom of the press, which mandates it to cover news stories and present them in it’s the best of interest of the society. Separating between what is pure truth and what is biased or distorted therefore remains a sole responsibility of the community and not the media.

The media coverage of political stories and its side effects on the modern society is still have faced with lots of debates and controversies, with different communication scholars and researchers posing major questions that are yet to be resolved, regarding the effects of “the new media” in the global society. Among such common questions is, to what extent the media should be allowed to cover on political rhetoric. And suppose the media could be curtailed in the coverage of political affairs, then this may give rise to yet another set of questions ,as it sternly contradicts with the journalistic dictum of “when it bleeds, it leads”, or simply put, the more peculiar, the most newsworthy. This is actually a “fifty-fifty” balanced “motion” which calls for a debate

The new era of mass communication has generally been “influenced by a procession of mass media communication that consequently lead to change of both time and space in the occurrence of rhetorical events” (Frobish, T., 2000 &, Murray, H, 1997.). Janet Murray, a linguistic and communication researcher, has identified this and stated that the mass media is significantly transforming the traditional rhetorical aspects of communication, including the genres, models of delivery, the notion of style, decorum, just to highlight a few examples (Murray, H, 1997.).

In this paper, aspects of mass media and propagation of political rhetoric have been discussed and critically analyzed based on the theories of political and rhetorical communication. The paper begins by discussing the succinct distinctions between the concepts of mass media, rhetoric communication and political rhetoric. Rhetoric as a concept has been defined in a brief, clear and concise manner for the purposes of additional understanding of this document, as it formed the basis of a technical theme this paper has attempted to address.


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