Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: David Cohen

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David Cohen is an elected school board member for the Cheltenham School District outside of Philadelphia and an appointed board member of the Montgomery County PA Planning Commission. @dlcohenone

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

Political communication should be held to a very high standard and should be grounded in truth. While citizens, communication professionals, candidates, and officeholders should seek to make a case for and advance their causes, they should not do so in a way that lies or seeks to disparage others. Political communications should be centered on facts and honesty. Words and context matter.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

To be honest to one’s self, to citizens, and to democratic institutions. The institutions where elected officials serve to represent citizens are more important than any candidate or officeholder and will remain in place long after the candidate or officeholder has left the scene. The actions of candidates and officeholders can strengthen or weaken government and how people view government. Underlying goals of elected officials should be to identify, define and advance goals that improve society and those that they serve, and to seek to accomplish them in a way that listens to people with different views and engage them in developing solutions when possible.

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

President Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech, where in his farewell speech the retired five-star Army general, spoke honestly and warned of the growing dominant role the military-industrial complex had in the United States.

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

As a school board member, one of the challenges is knowing when and how to raise or respond to issues. For context, there are several underlying issues in play. Individual board members do not speak for the entire board and their individual views that have not been adopted as policy do not represent the entire school district. A school board has limited areas for which they are responsible, such as approving a budget, adopting policies, and assessing student achievement and superintendents. School board members need to respect matters that are discussed in confidence and not share that information with others.

A key issue that I face is explaining to citizens and parents that school board members are not involved in the daily operations of schools, and not communicating or acting otherwise. Another issue is recognizing the importance of the state sunshine law under which our school board operates, which allows school boards to only discuss certain issues like legal matters or collective bargaining in closed-door executive sessions. A third issue is working to improve communications from our school district to the community in a manner that balances the goals of providing accurate information and advocating for the school district, while encouraging civic engagement.

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

Communications and ethics have gotten much more complex and difficult with social media and the associated immediacy they facilitate, demand and dictate for responses, as well as the misinformation, lies, and speculation people often posit on social media posts and comments regarding politics or government. As noted by Marshall McLuhan long ago, “the medium is the message.” Due to the nature of social media and people pushing agendas or trying to score points, responding to social media posts as a local elected official on a hot button issue can be a losing proposition. I am hopeful that people younger and smarter than me will favorably resolve many of the negative aspects of political communications on social media.