Government Accountability: How to Determine Rhetoric in Government and the Media

business or politician presentation with microphone

Truth or Spin? The Language Will Tell You

It is the mark of a truly educated person to be able to listen to what others are saying and identify the truth behind their words. Especially in politics, the rhetoric surrounding some of the nation’s largest concerns can be overwhelming. Marketers use it to sway you to spend money using sales tactics to persuade you to buy their product. It leaves many to doubt that there is any truth at all.

Forms of communication known as pander, exploit, appease, gratify, and cater to weakness, for personal gain, profit, or advantage. According to Merriam Webster, rhetoric is defined as language that is intended to influence people in a negative way. Other definitions that are an important part of understanding modern rhetoric include:

  • Propaganda: Information (media) that is misleading in nature and used to promote a particular set of views.
  • Buzzwords: Often referred to as jargon, buzzwords are words or phrases that are coined by leaders to explain a particular event, series of events or phenomena. The names are often misleading and self-serving.
  • Logos: A statement that appeals to someone based on logic. Review examples of logos.
  • Ethos: A statement that builds credibility for the messenger. Review examples of ethos.
  • Pathos: A statement that appeals to the audience’s emotional needs. Review examples of pathos.

As children we are taught to “read between the lines.” Our teachers are required to teach us inference. For young people, inference is no more than detecting that if Stan is wearing boots with raindrops it must be raining outside. However, industry leaders and political personalities, as well as advertising and marketing companies, use these tactics to convince large groups of people that their views are the right view – a powerful tool in politics.

The only defense against political and marketing propaganda is knowledge. By dissecting words, media reports and marketing strategies, you can identify tactics that are common modes of manipulation. Below is a list of the most popular rhetorical techniques:

  • Repetition: Ever know someone who convinced him or herself a lie really happened? Repetition is a strong tactic to force belief.
  • Figurative Language: Comparing two similar ideas, or comparing two different ideas, is a means of showing how one idea is superior or flawed.
  • Symbolism: Through the use of symbols speechwriters and advertisers can indirectly make suggestions to express a particular idea, emotion or state of mind.
  • Rhetorical Questions: Usually rhetorical questions are not intended to be answered. When used in speech writing or advertising they can help draw importance and significance to a point. Sometimes rhetorical questions can only be answered with an obvious “yes” or “no.”
  • Hyperbole: A hyperbole is a means of extreme exaggeration. Hyperboles can make situations seem more or less important.
  • Apostrophe: An interruption of thought to directly address a person.
  • Meiosis: An understatement of size or importance for rhetorical effect.
  • Aposiopesis: An abrupt pause for emphasis.

By understanding the tactics above you can recognize them in new stories, speeches, websites, religious sermons, newspapers and other marketing situations. Rhetoric is everywhere. Learning what it is and how it affects you is the best guard against accepting a statement or viewpoint that has been skewed, altered and promoted as truth.

Additional Resources





  • GAO App, by Timothy R. Smith, free iTunes app for iPhone and iPad
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