Research Skills, Logic, & Propaganda

Investigative Research and Writing for Progressives

The Muckraking Tradition

Progressives have a long and proud tradition of muckraking, and there are plenty of role models such as Nellie Bly, Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Rachel Carson, and Seymour Hersh. If you haven't heard of one or more of these journalists, get acquainted with their lives and work by doing your own research.

In progressive circles look for the work of Alan Nairn, Deborah Nelson, Laura Washington, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, Frederick Clarkson, Bill Berkowitz, Christian Parenti, Trudy Lieberman, Max Blumenthal, and Michelle Goldberg.

[From "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting," the course outline by Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher used at the Z Media Institute]

Progressive Journalism

by Chip Berlet

Investigative reporters working as part of the movement for social and economic justice can play an important role in providing the information needed for activists to make effective tactical and strategic decisions. Given the trends we are facing, all of us who want to defend democracy have to fight on four fronts. We must organize against:

  • The rise of reactionary populism, nativism, & fascism with roots in white supremacy, antisemitism, subversion myths, and the many mutating offspring of the Freemason/Jewish banker conspiracy theories.
  • Theocracy and other anti–democratic forms of religious fundamentalism, around the world, which in the US is based in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with its subtexts of elitist hierarchy, patriarchy and heterosexual privilege.
  • Authoritarian state actions in the form of militarism and interventionism abroad and government repression and erosion of civil liberties at home.
  • The antidemocratic neocorporatism of multinational capital with its attack on the standard of living of working people around the globe.

As we promote progressive solutions, we must also join with all persons across the political spectrum to defend the basic ideas of mass democracy, even as we argue that it is an idea that has never been real for many here in our country. The principles of the Enlightenment are not our goal, but resisting attempts to push political discourse back to pre–enlightenment principles is nonetheless a worthy effort.


by Chip Berlet

Investigative reporting and strategic research took a detour during the probe of the Iran–Contra affair. Because the executive branch was engaged in a coverup, and Congress refused to demand a full accounting, speculation about conspiracies blossomed, even within progressive circles. There certainly are conspiracies afoot in the halls of government and the cubicles of private industry. Prosecutors who present their evidence to a judge or jury routinely succeed in documenting illegal conspiracies. The burden of proof can be high, as it should be in a democracy.

Journalists frequently document conspiracies, and their published or broadcast charges can be tested against standards of journalistic ethics and sometimes in court in cases of alleged defamation involving libel or slander. But coverage of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in recent years has routinely violated common journalistic practices regarding second sourcing. A theory that cannot be documented, or for which there is only one source of questionable credibility, is a rumor--not investigative journalism. Many of the news stories about alleged misdeeds of President Clinton were little more than gossip.

The Internet is awash with conspiracy theories; and they were a key feature of the armed citizens militias. A central conspiracy theory in the Christian Right is that liberal secular humanists are plotting to destroy the family and the nation. Conspiracy theories are rooted in illogical thinking, and manipulative propaganda frequently attempts to sweep people past logic into emotional responses.

Stephen's Guide to Logical Fallacies - Stephen Downes

Dr. Michael C. Labossiere's Guide to Fallacies

Logic and Fallacies: From the Atheist Web


In 1936 Boston merchant Edward Filene helped establish the short–lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis, which sought to educate Americans to recognize propaganda techniques. Alfred McClung Lee, Institute director from 1940–42, and his wife Elizabeth Briant Lee, co–authors of The Fine Art of Propaganda, Social Problems in America, wrote an article in the periodical Propaganda Review in which they suggested educating the public about propaganda techniques was an urgent priority. The Lees also discussed the Institute’s symbols for the seven hallmark tricks of the manipulative propagandist. -cb



Investigative Reporters & Editors

Publishes The IRE Journal. Highly recommended is IREís The Reporterís Handbook: An Investigatorís Guide to Documents & Techniques, (NY: St. Martins, updated periodically). IRA also collects information on how to conduct specific types of investigations based on actual projects by members and hosts annual & regional conferences.

Investigative Reporters & Editors
100 Neff Annex, School of Journalism
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211

Get the Facts on Anyone, 3rd ed. by Dennis King

Explains how to use public sources to check the background of any person or organization, by Dennis King, (New York: Macmillan; Arco, 1999).

Use the Freedom of Information Act:

The Freedom of Information Act applies only to document held by federal agencies. Guides can be found at:

Use State Open Records and Sunshine Laws

These vary by state, so refer to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Pressí guide to what information is available in which states:

Local branches of the American Civil Liberties Union often have information on (or even guides to) using the state laws.

Other Research Resources

Research-Oriented Websites
Virtual Gumshoe: Investigative Resources on the WebDynamics of Conspiracist Scapegoating
Debunking Conspiracism
Internet Hoaxes and Urban Legends

Evaluating Internet Resources
A Guide to Critical Thinking About What You See on the Web
A Student's Guide to Research with the WWW

Democracy is a process, not a specific set of institutions.Democracy is a process that assumes the majority of people, over time, given enough accurate information, and the ability to participate in a free and open public debate, reach the right decisions to preserve liberty, defend democracy, and extend equality.

There is no such thing as objective journalism. But in the process of democracy journalists play a special role by providing fair and accurate reporting to assist the development of informed consent.


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