Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: David Mark


David Mark is a deputy news editor at the Washington Examiner. Previously, he served as a senior editor at Politico for six years and at CNN Digital Politics, among other roles. He is author of two books, one on negative campaigning and one on political language co-authored with Chuck McCutcheon. @DavidMarkDC

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?
Donald Trump's election in November 2016, beginning with his rise down the gold-plated Trump Tower escalator a-year-and-a-half earlier, has scrambled traditional notion of "ethics" and politics and communications. His election demonstrated that voters don't always choose who has the best position paper on an important public policy issue, or who talks in logic-based soundbites. His election was about emotion as much as reason, and going forward it's going to (hopefully) force those in the campaign community to draw bright lines they won't cross. Including disseminating false or highly-misleading information.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

As the saying goes, all we have is our reputations. What people think about you will last much longer than a two-year House term, four-year gubernatorial stint or six-year Senate tenure you helped get your boss elected to -- same goes for down-ballot races, as well. A campaigner’s goal should be to fight as hard as possible for their candidate or cause not only within the bounds of the law, strictly speaking, but what normal, reasonable people would consider ethical behavior. Much of that is common sense.

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

White House briefings before January 2017. The White House press secretary, lead spokesperson for the president of the United States, would on a daily, or near-daily basis, describe and detail their administration's agenda to reporters. This was admittedly slanted, biased and incomplete -- but each press secretary made sure to have their facts straight. That included Republican and Democratic press secretaries. That has changed under the current administration when press secretaries have been forced to admit -- in some cases under oath by prosecutors -- that they've disseminated false information.

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?

Journalists face this frequently when spoon-fed negative information -- also known as opposition research -- about an officeholder or candidate. Reporters and editors must evaluate the motivations for getting leaked that information, and whether or not that should have a bearing on its veracity. After all, just because the information comes from a source hostile to the subject matter doesn't render it false or unusable. It's a case-by-case basis call.

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

Know your bottom-line principles. What are you willing to lose your job over? Or take some sort of other career setback? For press secretaries, it's often being told to lie to journalists. For reporters, it's knowingly printing false information. Much of ethics in politics is common sense. If you have doubts about the proposed action, probably best not to do it.