The fundamental threat to communication arises from treating it as a tactical tool for achieving pre-specified ends for those who pay for it – and that’s what needs to be fought.
Communicating ethically is increasingly the centrepiece of the global challenges we are experiencing today.
As post truth and fake news become the buzzwords in the overarching context of the recent US elections, the work of communication practitioners and teachers is one of articulating clearly the core principles of ethical communication, outlining a model for what it means to be an ethical communicator.
Although the recent challenges of “fake news” and “alternative facts” have highlighted the challenges to communicating ethically, these challenges are not new to the profession. The profession of communication, created in the image of spin, inherits a history that is driven by the goal of developing the art of messaging with an eye toward achieving effectiveness.
Effectiveness is traditionally defined by the one paying the bill – a transnational corporation, a nation state (think current US government on climate change) or a political party (think Donald Trump or Narendra Modi on their campaign trails) that often determines the goals, forms and structures of communication messages. Front groups, advertorials, advertising messages and lobbying are all forms of communication driven by the strategic purpose of achieving the goals of the payer of the communication.
Communication professionals therefore have their work cut out by management teams, bureaucrats and ministers that predetermine the strategic objectives of communication. The fundamental threat to communication arises from this treatment of communication as simply a tactical tool for achieving pre-specified ends for those that have the money to pay for it.
For instance, the manufacturing of misinformation has been the cornerstone of public relations work for tobacco companies paid to cast doubt on the carcinomic effect of tobacco or public relations work for the oil industry to undermine climate research that documents the risks of human-induced climate change.
Similarly, journalism has increasingly been defined by the diktats of the payers of the news stories. Journalistic ethics and codes have been sacrificed with the infringement of politicians, bureaucrats and businesses on the production and content of news stories. Much before the term ‘fake news’ was invented, US mainstream media were peddling stories of weapons of mass destruction to build public opinion in support of US invasion of Iraq.
The growth of fake news is situated amid increasing public mistrust for communication that is typically strategic and directed toward achieving an agenda that is often subtly hidden from the message.
To address this broader climate of fake news and public mistrust of communication, therefore, is to first and foremost place at the centre of communication work and communication teaching the salience of ethical communication. Ethical communication is grounded in the definition of communication as a tool for making and representing ethical truth claims.
To communicate ethically is to be committed to the overarching principle of being true, being open to difference and being supportive of the freedom to express.
Communicating the truth
Let’s take this first concept of truthfulness: what does it mean to commit to being true?
A communicator often experiences a variety of contingencies that she has to negotiate when communicating. A commitment to being true first and foremost places an emphasis on aligning one’s communication with the material manifestations (such as change in weather patterns) one is representing.
Although truth, and especially truth about human phenomena, is inherently incomplete and fragmented, a basic attachment to communicating truthfully pushes the ethical communicator to examine the material correspondences of the claims they make. As opposed to the early forms of communication as propaganda and its later manifestation as public relations that place emphasis on the outcomes of communication to be achieved, the ethical communicator is driven by finding out what is actually going on and then communicating what is going on with as much fidelity as possible.
Materiality, the state of things as they unfold in the world around us, is expressed through communication that seeks to move as close to it as possible.
This ethic of staying close to materiality therefore means that it is imperative for the communicator to check the facts on an issue and then work toward communicating these facts clearly and accessibly to a wider public. Irrespective of the pressures and contingencies that work on a communicator, the basic task of communicating facts and being held accountable to communicating facts has to be a given in any form of communication. The agenda of communication and the act of communicating ought to emerge from careful consideration of facts, with an emphasis on translating these facts to the reader, listener and/or viewer.
The second concept of ethical communication I have outlined here is one of communicating with an openness to difference.
An acknowledgement of the vast diversity across the globe also means that a good communicator has to learn how to create open spaces for communicating this diversity.
Rather than pushing one’s worldview as the only way of looking at the world and being in it, ethical communication draws our attention to the many different values, many understandings and many approaches that underlie an issue. In doing so, it opens us up to considering many different possibilities. New ideas find entry into the public sphere through this continued openness to difference.
The commitment to openness to difference exists in a continually negotiated relationship with commitment to communicating the truth. The ethical communicator’s search for truth therefore is closely intertwined with habits of seeking out, appreciating and inviting differences.
Freedom on expression
The third key anchor to ethical communication is a commitment to freedom of expression.
It is worth noting that fake news is not a product of lack of regulation of new and digital public spheres, but rather a product of a climate of backhanded control of the public sphere by the power elite. The power games played by the deep state such as the role of the FBI and the power and control exerted by the intelligence community contributed to public insecurities and public mistrust in the eve of the US elections, thus further feeding the production, consumption and circulation of fake news.
The manipulation of communication for strategic ends by the power elite accompanied by the increasing control on spheres of public conversation produces a climate of depleting public trust in traditional institutions and organisations as communicators, building thus a readymade base for fake news.
To build a climate where public opinion is carefully considered and driven by facts also means that states and institutions have to do more in terms of opening up spaces for conversations (even and especially the difficult ones), and at the same time, cultivating habits of information literacy through adequate infrastructures for communication.
The first two elements, communicating truthfully and communicating with openness to difference, can’t be held up without a basic commitment to free expression that enables different worldviews and values to be openly discussed and debated in mature democracies.
In a climate of free communication, different and new worldviews are articulated with clarity and have an opportunity of being debated on in the public sphere.
Through such habits of deliberation and debate, communication that is free produces a community of readers, viewers, and listeners that evaluate different worldviews carefully, consider them with respect and arrive at conclusions through conversations.
To the extent that communication is muzzled by powerful forces in a given society, it ceases to be ethical and it ceases to generate a considered electorate. The problem of ‘fake news’ is not one to be solved through greater regulation, but one to be dealt with through ongoing and sustained commitments to ethical communication.
Mohan J. Dutta is a professor of communications and news media at the National University of Singapore.