Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Prof. Mack Mariani


Professor Mack Mariani is the Chair of the Political Science Department at Xavier University. @MackMariani

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

Political communication ethics should be grounded in the truth.  Tell the truth.  Show your work.

Political communication ethics should also treat human beings with dignity and avoid language that is likely to unfairly damage the reputation of others or cause harm to individuals or groups of people.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

For one thing, behaving ethically is in your self-interest.  The political communication business is fundamentally about persuasion: persuading people to see things in a certain way, or support a certain person or policy.  Unethical behavior undermines the profession by making everyone who takes in your messages (the public, the news media, other political figures) immediately discount the messages that you are conveying as spin.

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

When I was working as a legislative aide, we had an opportunity to personalize a policy disagreement about an airport contract (the opposing legislator had a family member who owned a business in the airport).  The legislator I worked with made the choice to frame our messages around the merits of the disagreement and rejected suggestions from others who wanted to frame the message around an alleged conflict of interest on the party of the opposition.

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?

The biggest ethical challenge these days, I think, is partisanship.  On a day to day basis, political communications professionals are asked to craft and project messages that undermine the opposing party and build up the party that they represent.  Although the short-term goals are often justifiable (stopping a measure that you think is a mistake, limiting the ability of the leadership on the other side to make changes that you think would be bad for the country), the cumulative effect of partisan attack politics is to undermine the ability of the system to work at all and undermine the faith that people have in politics to accomplish anything worthwhile. 

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

If you are working with the news media (or as a member of the news media), your credibility is everything.  If you give away your credibility for short-term advantage, you will pay for it in the long run.