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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Might Political Journalists Hold Leaders Accountable to Their Moral Values?

Collage showing reporters and journalists conducting interviews.

Collage showing reporters and journalists conducting interviews.

Subramaniam Vincent

Subbu Vincent is director, journalism and media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.


Political journalists operate within a moral frame (liberal for example) that may already cause friction with a politician (conservative for example) they are interviewing or vice versa. They may say or propose criticism that easily allows the politician to simply accuse them as biased. The person being interviewed on immigration or abortion may also feel the reporter is “not listening” to their concerns and professes no understanding or empathy for it. 

The most significant consequence of this is that routine everyday interview-based stories simply play out more of the same rhetorical oft-repeated tropes and journalism’s illumination function loses all leverage. Is there a way out? Yes. Step in the Moral Foundations TheoryThe Moral Foundations theory offers a new vocabulary for journalists to help listen and frame new questions. This may help open up conversations instead of talking past each other which frustrates news viewers and readers.

The social and cultural psychologists who created Moral Foundations Theory ask the following questions: “Why do people disagree so passionately about what is right? Why, in particular, is there such hostility and incomprehension between members of different political parties?” Haidt et al say they developed and proposed the Moral Foundations Theory to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. MFT is part of recent socio-psychological and cultural research on how humans come to judgment about right and wrong. 

In this guide, "Applying Moral Foundations Theory to Journalistic Interviewing", we offer a series of steps with real-world examples to unpack political speech and reframe to new questions using Moral Foundations Theory. Key takeaways from our guide: 

  1. The steps we outline allow the reporter to paraphrase someone’s “right or wrong” concerns back to them to double-check their understanding. 
  2. We examine new opportunities for journalists to ground their questions in the moral foundations of the politician they are interviewing rather than their own. 
  3. In turn this allows the possibility of holding leaders accountable to the values they espouse in public

Access the Moral Foundations Theory guide and example slide decks for download


Feb 9, 2023

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