Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Peter Loge

Peter Loge is the director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication, an Associate Professor at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, with over 25 years of experience in politics and communication including senior positions in the House, Senate, and Obama administration and on a number of candidate and issue campaigns.


1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

From the White House Press Secretary to casual observers who post about politics on social media, everyone who communicates politically has an obligation to support, or at least not undermine, the system that allows that communication to take place. 

Our democracy is a long argument, and the quality of that argument determines the quality of our democracy. If our political arguments are shallow, based on deception and ad hominem, or are otherwise base our democracy will be as well. If our political arguments are honest, robust, passionate, and calling to us to a higher ideal, our democracy will reflect that as well. 

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

For the same reason one should behave ethically in general. For some that may be because bad behavior has a way of coming back at you, for others because the right thing to do is the right thing to do. Your ethical foundation should not be determined by the context, even if how those ethics are applied may be. In addition, winning at all costs may come at exactly that, a cost to our system ultimately larger than any one person or one issue.

Ethics and winning are often pitted against each other - people use phrases like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.” But our politics isn’t a fight to see which controls the turf, our politics is an argument about the best way forward together. Bring a crane to a construction site and use your superior tools to build a better house (given the context I should note this metaphor is not mine, a student named Andrew Smith thought of it). It can be really difficult to find ethical ways to win, and it can be hard to engage in heated partisan politics without taking the easy and ethically suspect approach. But if it were easy, you wouldn’t be paid to do it, and even if you aren’t getting paid our democracy deserves better than the easy way out.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Most political communication is ethical. There is a lot of political talk, most of which we don’t notice because it is neither especially inspiring nor is it especially awful. Recent examples of “we need more of that” include Senator McCain defending President Obama during their heated campaign for president; Senator Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, defending Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the initial debates over the Affordable Care Act; and Senator Flake calling out the President’s attacks on our democracy. These are notable because all of these legislators acted in ways consistent with their conservative beliefs while defending a forum in which their opponents could be heard. One can publicly commit to a rhetorical approach and still take a policy position against those whom they are defending. 

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face? 

First is what we all face - how to engage in political discussion or argument. A lot of it for me is what I choose not to do - I don’t tend to pop-off about politics online, and regardless of the venue I I try to focus arguments on the argument and not the person, and I try not mistake the clever for the smart.

Most of my career has been spent working on issue and advocacy campaigns. A critical element of those campaigns is framing the issue - helping shape what the issue is “about.” Most issues are about a lot of things at once, for example smoking is about farmers, convenience store owners, smokers’ rights, public health, and much more. How the issue is seen by the public, policymakers, and the press determines who the allies and opponents are likely to be and the range of likely policy outcomes. How advocates decide to try to frame an issue may be miles from how they come into it. One way to succeed on criminal justice reform is to secure the support of law enforcement (and it’s hard to win and then have policies implemented without it). The framing choice raises a few ethical questions. First, are you lying about your motives to get the outcome you want? If so, is that OK? This is a variation on the ends/means question, but with personal values being the means. A bunch of years ago I was the first director of The Justice Project, a self-described “death penalty reform” organization; we didn’t take a position on the death penalty, but said we had problems with trials and fairness. The goal, of course, was to abolish the death penalty. We believed that if we brought enough attention to its flaws people would give up on it. This framing brought in new allies and ultimately succeeded. Early in the effort I got a call from a childhood friend who had heard about the effort - he was devout and a law professor - he called me to chew me out for clearly lying about my motives. This was the first time I’d talked to him since about 8th grade. In another case I was asked to write a plan to pass legislation making an international industry more transparent, which the client thought would make it easier to identify and combat human rights abuses. It occurred to me that the issue could also be framed as terrorism (transparency would help identify and break up terrorist networks). I then went out to find people who thought this was true - the idea came before the research - and it turns out some experts agreed with me. So we ran an anti-terrorism campaign, the bill ultimately passed, and has since been repealed.

In addition to the question of motives, the success of the efforts may have unintended longer term consequences that may make other problems harder to address. If the real problem with the death penalty is a larger set of structural problems with crime and punishment, “reform” that eliminates the death penalty may have the effect of strengthening the logic of our current approach to crime and punishment, an approach with which many anti-death penalty advocates have serious problems. By drawing attention to terrorism and the need for more tools to combat it, the effort could have the unintended consequence of increasing surveillance and limiting civil rights - a close cousin to the need to protect human rights, which is why the advocates got involved in the first place.

In both cases I stand by my decision and my approach, but I can also see why others would disagree.

Advocates will regularly be faced with similar challenges. How far are you willing to push the messaging to get the end you want? How many unusual suspects are you willing to bring into your effort and thereby possibly strengthen their goals which may be very different than yours?

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Think about ethics early and often. Find a personal set of principles or foundations and stick to them. One way to do that is to write down lines you will not cross, or ideals from which you will never stray, and tape them to your computer or stick them in your wallet so they are never far.

More civility and respect in politics would be good, but that’s not always the same as ethics. You can be ethically partisan, aggressive, impolite, and in your face. There may be times when your ethical principles demand no less. But always remember that there are always Wednesdays in politics. The world doesn’t end with Tuesday’s election. Every bill you help pass needs to be an effective law. Every program you help fund needs to be as successful as possible. Your deadline might be Tuesday’s election, Wednesday’s city council vote, or Thursday’s hearing - but your goal is what happens as a result.

In The Crack Up F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.” 

It can be easy to see the obvious - promises of money or favors in exchange for votes or statements are wrong. Ethics is also about the small decisions we may not see until it’s too late. The corner cut or something we let slide out of expedience. The offer of money in a brown paper bag is the wolf at the door, it’s easy to see and easy to figure out you should keep the door closed. The little ethical decisions are the termites in the basement that, left unchecked, can bring down the house without your noticing anything is wrong until it is too late. The effect that we have on society as political communicators often does not come down to a few core decisions that define us, but in the small decisions we make day to day.