Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication - Susan Nold


Susan Turner Nold, J.D. is the Director of Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.  Nold has previously held positions as a General Counsel for a Texas State Senator, an attorney for a national law firm, and worked as a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. @Susannold

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

Political communication done right should advance ethical, effective, and impactful citizenship and an aspirational vision for democracy – one where all citizens are informed and constructively engaged.  I believe that political communication provides great opportunity and bears much responsibility for this goal.

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

Behaving ethically in any situation represents one’s choice to live a life of honor and service to god, country, community, their employer, family, and fellow man.  Lying, half-truths, misrepresentation, bigotry, hate-speech, and the many other forms of unethical political communication can harm others in consequential, even catastrophic ways.  If practitioners of political communication consider this more routinely, this field can bring about greater awareness among everyone about the potential impact of our words.  That would be progress.

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

My examples are not the kind that make news or that are usually seen by the public.  Much political communication comes about as the result of a team and decisions made by people who are planning out a course of action.  When a member of the team voices a point of view or raises a concern, we can influence one another, and when needed, protect one another from perhaps some of our worst human instincts.  Therefore, being part of teams who value different perspectives and points of view is important. 

Also, when one’s work does not involve the benefits of a team, political communicators should be thoughtful, diligent, and conscientious. In my previous work as a legislative aide for an elected official, I drafted documents all of the time -- correspondence, talking points, policy summaries and briefs.  Doing that well means spending a lot of time talking with experts, asking questions, fact-checking, rechecking, and double-checking.  Working in support of an effective and respected legislator is very rewarding and upholding a high standard for ethics in political communication is an essential part of effective and honorable public service.  Many individuals must be capable and committed to this for our system of government to work because so much of it relies on trust.  If we abandon or lose sight of this, corruption, gridlock, dysfunction, distrust, cynicism and apathy will result.

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?

In my current work leading a university institute, we support several civic education programs.  One is a bipartisan 3-day campaign bootcamp where college students are taught the fundamental components of a campaign and use their knowledge to take part in a campaign simulation exercise.  The sessions are taught by active political professionals – Republicans and Democrats – most of whom have spent their careers working in campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels.  At times, we recognize that tactics that may be effective for winning a campaign, can be unethical.  We also recognize that campaign strategies, driven mostly by the time and financial constraints of campaigns, are ethical but not necessarily in the best interest of democracy more broadly.  We unequivocally disavow unethical tactics but highlighting these issues can be constructive and educational.  As these issues come up, or as questions arise, it is good for presenters to point them out and encourage discussion about them.  This is beneficial for the students and the instructors.  It’s never a bad thing for more of us to practice contemplating the ethical implications of our actions. 

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

I would advise people in any field to become more aware of situations that raise ethical implications.  Failing to recognize an ethical issue or its potential, is an ethical problem itself.  I would also encourage us not to fear or distance ourselves from ethical dilemmas.  I once taught students a class on campaign law and ethics and a student approached me after class discouraged and deterred by how many legal and ethical issues were involved in politics and campaigns.  He shared that as a pre-med student, he preferred to stick to medicine where there were not as many ethical issues, which of course, I found funny.  Surely, he will eventually take medical ethics. The final advice I give my students, is to work for, and associate with people who are ethical.  Do your best to avoid working for people who you know to be unethical.  That would be a difficult and unhappy place to work.