Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Jennifer Rubin


Jennifer Rubin is an opinion writer for the Washington Post and an MSNBC contributor. @JRubinBlogger

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

Rule #1: Never lie. It’s that simple. One can shade, spin or puff up your candidate, your cause or in your media conversation with political players but one cannot, as the White House communications staff now does, misrepresent or makeup facts. If I tell an elected the piece is about X, it better be about X. The same holds for spokesmen, advocates, candidates and electeds.

Rule #2: Do not incite bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or any other hateful rhetoric in the political realm. If your boss asks you to smear a group or attack an opponent’s religion, for example, you refuse. We now are seeing a surge in hate crimes and, specifically, violence against religious institutions. Anyone who contributes to that atmosphere owns some responsibility for the impact her words have on others.

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Your word is the coin of the realm. Still. If you lie, you’ll lose the ability to communicate effectively for your candidate or cause. If a journalist loses the trust of editors, readers and she is toast. Beyond that, political communicators are Americans living in the society that they help shape. If they want more reasoned debate and less divisiveness politics they must not spew falsehoods or fan the flames of bigotry.

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

James Mattis refused to lie or offer obsequious praise for the president. He continued to reaffirm his belief in the Constitution and in equality under the law. Eventually he was forced out, but he did not compromise his own code of ethics while he was serving.

 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?

We all face competitive pressures, but if speed is a priority over accuracy, we all lose. Whatever role you play in the political communications profession the most important words may be “I don’t know” or “I will get back to you.” In addition, in an environment in which political players may not respect objective reality, it is easy to fall into false balance. If one politician says the sky is blue and the other says it’s red, you don’t simply repeat each assertion. You say one politician correctly identified the sky as blue; the other misrepresented the sky’s color. (We should reserve “lie” for a deliberate falsehood as opposed to innocent error or ignorance)

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

Learn history and policy. If you are simply a cipher or a transcriber for others you cede your reputation and moral authority to others. There is no shortcut by which you can cover healthcare, for example, and not understand in some detail the healthcare data and issues you will be communicating. Likewise, you don’t have to be a lawyer to cover the courts, but you better know how to read an opinion, have some substantive knowledge of the issues (e.g. separation of powers, voting rights) and understand the nuances of legal writing. The struggle to keep current when you have so much to do can be stressful, but “what you do” must include speaking and writing authoritatively.