Are you Ethical Communicator?


AUDIENCE: Media and Communications professionals. (Public Relations, Marketing, Journalism).

Whether you consider yourself a media and communications professional, a journalist, a member of the marketing team, a public relations or public communications expert, one thing that must differentiate you from others and make you an invaluable communicator is your set of strong core ethical principles.

In the syllabus “The Ethics of Strategic Communications: An Introduction,” from Winter 2009, (1) University of Oregon Professor, John L. Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics & Responsibility, Thomas Bivins, a co-author of several textbooks on mass media ethics, public relations writing, newsletter publication, advertising, and publication design and writing, (2) provides a table of ethical/unethical communication. (1) I attempt to re-create this table by using apples and bananas (objects used in the “Facts First” campaign calling attention to fact vs. false news in the media (3)):

According to Thomas Kent in Huffington Post article “Who’s a Journalist? Closing in on Definition” traditional definition of a journalist “someone who is linked to a traditional media organization or who gathers news for gain or livelihood.” In September of 2013 Senate Judiciary Committee bill was defining journalism as an activity, rather than a job, says Kent. Under such wide definitions, continues Kent, practically anybody engaged in disseminating news to the public can be assumed to be a journalist, from a reporter to Edward Snowden to a teenager from a rock concert. (4) Consequently, Kent gives several bullets that can be used as tests to help determine quality journalism:

    • Is the product (writing, information, etc.) intended for the general public?
    • Is the work analytical in nature and does not just relay the raw information?
    • Is the reporting based on facts, not fabrications? Are statistics honest, images unmanipulated, quotations correct?
    • Does the person/organization guard against conflict of interest that could affect the product?
    • Does the product convey multiple views or just one side to the story?
    • Does the person reveal his/her identity or contact info
    • Does the person publicly correct the errors?

Using this list as a test, take a story and give it a review by answering all of its questions. If any of the above bullets are a NO, then I would question the sources and the reporter. But does this test really determine the level of ethical communication?

The more clear distinction is determined between the ethical communicators, or, as Stephen J.A. Ward of the University of Oregon calls them “investigative journalists with a valid cause” and the “agenda-driven” activists – people who have ulterior motives that result in either unethical or unsuccessful communication of information. In his article “Going Radical: We Need A Substantial Change In The Way We Talk About Ethics” Stephen J.A. Ward raises an important point: “Radical media ethics… means a willingness to adopt a new attitude towards media ethics, including journalism ethics. It means a willingness to engage in philosophical questioning of principles, to consider new norms, and to look at media from a cosmopolitan perspective.” (5) Communication ethics must rely on strong core ethical principles evolved through multicultural outlook.

In the video “The Five Core Values of Journalism” Aidan White, Director, Ethical Journalism Network describes as ideal and highly ethical definitions of a journalist. These definitions, apply across the board to any media and communication professionals and would serve as a strong set of guiding principles to abide by. Below I made an attempt to graphically interpret these principles into the shape of a Star of Communication Ethics (6):

    • TRUTH & ACCURACY – Fact-based information – no deceptive handling of the facts.
    • INDEPENDENCE – your work, not on behalf of anyone else, you do not represent, you are transparent, acting independently.
    • IMPARTIALITY principle – make the story whole.
    • HUMANITY – understand the consequences of what you publish and what you broadcast. No harassment, no obscenity, no violence can be a part of the humanitarian process.
    • ACCOUNTABILITY – we find it difficult to say sorry but we have to engage with the audience, correct mistakes.

But are these five core value principles enough to define ethics in strategic communications?

Perhaps, the search for ethical communication begins with the individual’s core values? What about the cultural background? We all come from different places, we all have different perceptions of ethics.  In the book “Ethics in Human Communication” Richard L. Johannesen, Kathleen S. Valde and Karen E. Wheedbee provide a summary of the five principles to facilitate communication across cultural differences and ethics (7):

    1. Recognize needs and interests held in common.
    2. Begin agreement by recognizing what’s intolerable.
    3. Value diversity over assimilation.
    4. Listen to and value non-dominant culture.
    5. When everyone’s needs cannot be met, favor the needs of vulnerable.

These principles are communication virtues that help facilitate intercultural conversations in a diverse global environment. Together with Star of Communication Ethics, the table of successful ethical communication, five virtue principles and Kent’s definition of journalism may help align the moral compass of the ethical communicator. The art of the mastery of strategic communications should be the final goal of every ethically responsible strategic communications professional.

Works Cited:

    1. T. Bivins, Univesity of Oregon, 2019. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 6 April 2019].
    2. T. Bivins, University of Oregon, 2009. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 April 2019].
    3. A.-C. Diaz, “BANANAS REPLACE APPLES IN CNN’S UPDATE OF ITS ‘FACTS FIRST’ CAMPAIGN,” Ad Age, 15 November 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 April 2019].
    4. T. Kent, “Who’s a Journalist? Closing in on a Definition,” Huffington Post, 3 October 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 April 2019].
    5. E. M. Do, “GOING RADICAL: WE NEED A SUBSTANTIAL CHANGE IN THE WAY WE TALK ABOUT ETHICS,” J Source The Canadian Journalist Project, 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 April 2019].
    6. A. White, “The 5 Principles of Ethical Journalism,” Ethical Journalism Network, 19 February 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 April 2019].
    7. Johannesen, Richard L.; Valde, Kathleen S.; Whedbee, Karen E.. Ethics in Human Communication (Page 235). Waveland Pr Inc.

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