The Ethics of Political Communication

All the Sturm und Drang over Obamacare and shutdowns has filled the air with overheated political rhetoric to the point that many people are completely turned off by government and political debate.  “You can’t believe anything any of them say.”    
While such a public reaction might make the study of political communication more interesting, it also makes the practice of ethical political communication more challenging.  

The terms ethical and political communication shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.  Nearly all political communication tries to persuade.  But there are limits on how far the ethical communicator can go beyond completely neutral, fact-based arguments that present both sides of an issue in cold, objective terms.  And that line between ethical and unethical communication can sometimes be quite faint.  Let’s explore both sides of the line.

Spin is not inherently unethical.  It generally refers to accentuating the positive without mentioning the negative.  We’re all used to it.  Every good sales pitch is spin.  In politics and public affairs, we hear spin every day when people says something completely biased to describe an event or viewpoint.  Ironically, politicians often accuse each other of spinning while they’re busy spinning themselves.

Why do they spin?  Because they’re selling.  Most political communication takes place in a world of competing ideas, priorities and agendas; a world in which “winning” is the goal.  That doesn’t mean honest political communicators shouldn’t try to persuade; shouldn’t try to marshal compelling and convincing arguments to win people over.  It’s an overreliance on persuasion —on empty hype without substance — that weakens the public’s belief and trust in their leaders and institutions.

Is “spin-free” political communication even possible?  Possible maybe, but extremely unlikely…and it would be seriously dull and passionless.  Imagine a political debate in which opposing debaters just presented facts and data and said nothing to try to persuade the audience to support their viewpoint.  Imagine if no politician ever spoke with zeal and conviction.  Imagine the interest and participation in our political system if nobody was ever stirred or motivated to participate.

The word itself brings to mind some of the most cruel and repressive regimes in history: Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Maoist China and today, North Korea under Kim Jong Un.  It reeks of dictatorships and mind control.  But the fact is propaganda was not just a tool for totalitarians, and it did not die out with the fall of Berlin or the Berlin Wall.  It is alive and well in America, among other places.  

The problem with propaganda is that it tries to directly influence people’s opinions rather than communicate facts.  What sets propaganda apart from other forms of advocacy is a willingness to sway people through deception and confusion rather than persuasion and understanding.  Propaganda frequently relies on subtle, even insidious ways to shape opinion, such as calculated attempts to evoke strong emotions or by suggesting illogical relationships between concepts.

Lies aren’t spin. They’re just lies. But, the pervasive use of spin by politicians and its tacit acceptance by the media and to a large extent, the public, have created an environment that tempts political communicators to try to dress up flat-out lies as spin.  And that’s the real tragedy: more elected officials and candidates are willing to simply make it up to win an election or a public policy debate.  

We used to count on the news media to patrol the borders of truth and fact, and sound the alarm when someone crossed the line.  Unfortunately, with the dramatic changes in media and political reporters, politicians have learned they can lie with virtual impunity; that they will rarely be called on it.  Fewer reporters have the institutional memory to know when a politician is telling a whopper or the tenure to feel secure in calling them on it when it occurs.  And I’ve been told by reporters on the Hill that being the “honesty police” is the job of PolitiFact and FactCheck.
Political Communication Ethics
It’s really pretty simple.  What separates propaganda and lying from honest political discourse, more than anything else, is the intent of the communicator.  And intent is governed, more than anything else, by that communicator’s professionalism and ethics.  

You may someday be put in the position of having to decide whether you’re willing to cross the line or not.  It could even be a matter of keeping your job.  What would you do?  

By Dave Helfert



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3 responses to “The Ethics of Political Communication

  1. This is a good start. Rule #1. You can never lie. But what one person calls a lie is simply an opinion to another, i.e. Obamacare will kill millions of jobs. A lie or an opinion? It depends on who says it and who hears it. But in the end, we will know the answer to the question.

    But I do think we can have political communications with less spin. The best communicators, and I would argue, the best politicians are those who know and apprecaite their opponents position as well as their own and then can tell voters clearly and honestly why thier position is best. What we see today is far from this standard. The good news is I think spin is growing old and tired and the public is catching on.

  2. Susan Allen

    Dear Dave: Thanks for these excellent definitions. They’re very useful. We’ve been studying persuasive techniques and are trying to develop strategies to get people to process messages rather than just respond to simple cues or images that short-circuit thinking. Do you have any advice?

    • David Helfert

      Wow, Susan! You raise an intriguing point. I believe the reason most people respond to cues and shortcuts like political party labels and symbols is because they, in effect, choose not to take the time to fully process messages. The vast majority of people are not political or policy junkies. They’re lives are filled with family, career, house payments/rent, health concerns, financial security, retirement, maybe the World Series or the Redskins, etc. They tune into politics and policy when an election is getting close or when political communication connects to something they really care about. Knowing this, political communicators can use cues and shortcuts to build support for their viewpoint without having to make an empirical case. Frequently, these cues and shortcuts have an emotional element, which can not only grab people, but get them fired up to take actions, like voting or sending an email or contributing.

      Does this address your point? It’s a fascinating discussion.

      Dave Helfert

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