Let’s say you’re not a journalist or a reporter. But you are an activist, campaign staffer, or political junkie. Maybe you’re just an engaged and energized citizen. Your interest in who we elect as our next president is as intense as it is narrowly focused. You are a partisan of the first order, a do-or-die advocate for a particular candidate, and believe that if your man or woman is not elected then we’re all going to hell in a handbasket (cliché duly noted).

What are the ethics of writing about the 2020 Presidential election? What ethical norms apply to what you write? Are there political ethics? Are they different, say than legal or medical ethics? Professional journalists have ethical codes, as do the colleges that educate them. Is that a reliable source for you, the nonprofessional writer with a lot to say? If so, this short blog post is for you.

Political ethics is not an oxymoron. There is such a thing. Political ethics may be loosely defined as making moral judgements about political action and political agents. That’s a good start on the search for ethical norms—Morality.

Whatever you do, whatever you write, to whomsoever you might support, don’t do it as Niccolò Machiavelli would have you do. He is one of the most famous political theorists in world history. “He spoke on, and later subverted, the matters of political ethics. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that a political leader may be required to behave in evil ways if necessary to maintain his authority.”[1] He proposed, “Immoral behavior, such as the use of deceit and the murder of innocents, was normal and effective in politics.”[2] So, that’s the second ethical norm in writing about the 2020 Presidential Election—Don’t go Machiavellian.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University exists to help people see, understand, and work through ethical problems. Their website wisely notes that like birds, ethical issues are everywhere, often difficult to spot, but noticed by those in search of them.[3] That’s another ethical norm for writers during this presidential election season—Do your Research.

There is another way for writers to examine their ethics when writing about the upcoming Presidential Election. We could follow the nine-point ethics pledge that all members of the American Association of Political Consultants, take. This 1969 group is a multi-partisan organization of political and public affairs professionals dedicated to improving democracy.[4] Their Code of Professional Ethics requires that each member pledge by signing the Code annually. The Code is as follows:

  1. I will not indulge in any activity, which would corrupt or degrade the practice of political consulting.
  2. I will treat my colleagues and clients with respect and never intentionally injure their professional or personal reputations.
  3. I will respect the confidences of my clients and not reveal confidential or privileged information obtained during our professional relationship.
  4. I will use no appeal to voters which is based on racism, sexism, religious intolerance or any form of unlawful discrimination and will condemn those who use such practices. In turn, I will work for equal voting rights and privileges for all citizens.
  5. I will refrain from false or misleading attacks on an opponent or member of his or her family and will do everything in my power to prevent others from using such tactics.
  6. I will document accurately and fully any criticism of an opponent or his or her record.
  7. I will be honest in my relationship with the news media and candidly answer questions when I have the authority to do so.
  8. I will use any funds I receive from my clients, or on behalf of my clients, only for those purposes invoiced in writing.
  9. I will not support any individual or organization, which resorts to practices forbidden by this code.

Now you have six more[5] ethical norms to follow. Do As They Would Have You Do.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_ethics

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli

[3] https://www.scu.edu/ethics/

[4] https://theaapc.org/about-us/

[5] The first three pledge points are not ethical guidance; they are corporate promises.