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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Campaign Mud-Slinging

Campaign Mud-Slinging

Campaign Mud-Slinging

Determining which candidates communicate ethically with voters

Hana Callaghan

This article was originally published on on July 13, 2016.

Sick of angry campaign ads invading your living room? Dismayed by the vulgarity and poisonous political messages of the primary season? Don't change the channel quite yet.

As we head into the general election, there are things to learn from political communications, and it is our duty as voters to cut through the rhetoric in order to vet these applicants for the most important job in the country.

The American process for electing public officials is born out of the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate. It is the campaign's task to introduce the candidate and inform the voters about the candidate's background, his or her positions on the issues, and how the candidate is different from the opponent.

Political communications serve to inform the electorate, as long as the content of the communication is true, fair, and relevant. It is our task as voters to analyze all political communications to make sure that they meet this standard.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that campaign communications often distort the truth.

For example, who can forget Donald Trump's television ad showing hundreds of immigrants streaming across the border. The only problem was that the video was taken in Morocco. Bernie Sanders came under fire when an ad about endorsements quoted favorable comments about him from a newspaper that hadactually endorsed Clinton.

Frequent visits to fact-checking websites such as and politifact.comcan help us separate fact from fiction.

Truth is the first task of campaign communications, but something true can still be unfair. We need to be wary of statements or facts which, while true, are being used out of context.

Clinton was recently criticized for taking Sanders' voting record out of context when she claimed in Michigan that he had voted against the auto bailout. Sanders had in fact supported a stand-alone bill bailing out the auto industry, but voted against the larger bill that not only included support for the auto industry but the banking and insurance industries as well. Whenever a candidate is criticized for casting a vote, we need to make sure we know the whole story.

Not only should political communications be truthful, and fair, but they should also be relevant to the issues in the race.

We have all seen political attacks that talk about a candidate's youthful indiscretions, private marital troubles, or about problematic behavior on the part of a candidate's family member or associate. The question of whether these types of attacks are relevant to the issues in the campaign can only be decided by the individual voter.

For example, was the fact that Melania Trump posed for a risqué "British GQ" photo shoot 15 years ago, before she was married to Donald Trump, really relevant to the issues facing our country today? Is Bill Clinton's past infidelity relevant to Hillary Clinton's ability to govern?

We must question whether a spot is designed purely to appeal to our base emotions (such as disgust at a family member's behavior) or whether the content of the ad is pertinent to a legitimate interest in the race.

In this day and age of the 24-hour television news cycle, the Internet, and Twitter, the ability to broadcast vitriol immediately to millions of voters has created what political commentator Peggy Noonan has called the "Golden Age of mudslinging."

The problem is that how a person campaigns is an indicator of how he or she will govern. We need to keep that in mind as we dodge the mud this campaign season and try to determine which candidate is communicating ethically with the voters.

Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California and teaches the free online short course, "How to Run an Ethical Campaign—And Win!"

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, Chuck Burton)

Jul 26, 2016

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