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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Applying Moral Foundations Theory to Journalistic Interviewing

Collage showing reporters and journalists conducting interviews.
Subbu Vincent is director, journalism and media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Interviewing leaders in politics, public life and culture is a morally fraught exercise these days. The 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.


Moral Reframing in Political Interviews: Why, How and So What?



Passionate and heated disagreement about what is “right” and “wrong” is common in modern society, especially when people discuss hot-button issues such as policing, abortion, immigration, and guns. As journalists, we encounter this when we interview political leaders and voters alike.  Journalists often ask provocative or searching or critical questions of politicians in an implicit or explicit “right” or “wrong” frame. When the leaders respond, they imply what they see as “right” and “wrong” grounded in their own moral sense. 

A key finding of the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) from social psychologists is that liberals and conservatives endorse different morals. This difference easily manifests in psychological friction that can surface as a conflict in the interview itself, especially when the journalist and the politician come from opposing moral values.  For example, when a journalist from a liberal mindset tosses a question or assertion about the harm caused to a group by a decision, the morality implicit in it may or may not automatically be accepted by a conservative politician whose concerns may be grounded in a different set of morals.  Likewise, when a journalist of a conservative temperament talks to a progressive politician who advocates the expansion of government funding to solve a problem, the same thing may happen. The endorsement of different morals is often in play during discourse on taxation, healthcare, immigration, and so forth. 

Political journalists must exercise an awareness that their own moral frame (if liberal for example) 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 Theory. 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. 

Understanding and applying MFT is a new capacity for journalists. MFT also allows us to listen to people at their moral wavelengths or frequencies, akin to tuning a radio for stations. In order to tune in, one must first know the band of frequencies a human’s moral speech may be broadcasting on. An AM radio cannot tune into FM. An FM receiver cannot tune into satellite gigahertz frequencies. So what bands are we as humans communicating our moral speech on? 

Scholars have already found support for MFT’s use in moral reframing of arguments for political persuasion across the liberal-conservative divide. Applying that here, if a liberal journalist is interviewing a conservative politician and asks a critical question grounded in liberal concerns, they may get a more “attached” or defensive response. If they ground their question in the moral foundations of the person they are interviewing, they may help the politician start from a less attached position. In this series, I will provide examples showing that understanding and applying MFT might accrue multiple benefits for both journalists and news readers.  


The takeaways

  1. Following the steps we outline in these articles will 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. 


What is Moral Foundations Theory?

In their seminal paper of 2012, “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism”, authors Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt state “MFT is an intuitionist theory – it tries to explain the rapid, automatic reactions people have to violations of what they take to be a shared moral order.”  

Graham and Haidt go on to say that there is not just one moral intuition—a general flash of “wrongness”—just as there is not one taste receptor on the tongue whose output tells us “delicious!” “Rather, we posit that there are a variety of rapid, automatic reactions to patterns in the social world. When we detect such patterns, moral modules fire, and a fully enculturated person has an affectively-valenced experience. Not just a feeling of “good!” or “bad!”, but an experience with a more specific “flavor” to it, such as “cruel!”, “unfair!”, “betrayal!”, “subversive!”, or “sick!” 

MFT proposes that six moral foundations drive our moral beliefs and judgments. 

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. (The paper’s authors have added this note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives.) 

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).  

6) Liberty/oppression (added later): This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty. 

(Source: Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism)

Critically, MFT also says that in general, liberals are more likely to endorse Care and Fairness foundations than conservatives, and conservatives (while more likely to use all the foundations) are more likely to endorse the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations more than liberals. 

Endorsing different morals has consequences. Journalists interviewing politicians as a scenario is no exception. Coming back to our radio frequencies metaphor, MFT identifies the frequencies our minds are operating while making and communicating moral judgments and reactions about something. Each foundation  - care or fairness or loyalty or liberty or authority or sanctity -  is like a frequency the moral machine is operating and telecasting on. When people are furiously defending their own positions as right and others’ views as wrong,  a combination of frequencies may show up and not just one. Different parts of a conversation, and sometimes even a single sentence may have different moral foundations in them. 


How might we apply MFT to journalism? 

Recognizing moral foundations in our own speech and that of others is the first step. Imagine this conversation between a journalist and a politician. 

Reporter’s Q: “On January 6th, 2021, you offered a fist pump of solidarity to the protesters gathered outside the US Capitol. That will go down as an indelible image. And yet, there was no widespread ballot fraud. Then-Attorney General William Barr debunked it. Does that worry you?”

[Moral foundation in the question: Fairness/cheating. Biden won fairly. In attacking the Capitol, did the Trump supporters try to stop a fair victory?] 

Politician: Well we have a tradition of vigorously contesting elections. We did that in 2000 in Bush v Gore and now in 2020. (This is the politician reframing quickly, falsely equating the 2000 election contestation with the 2020 verdict.) 

Now, applying MFT, the reporter counter-frames thus: 

Reporter’s potential counter Q: You are equating 2000’s vigorous contestation with 2020. But in 2020, the verdict was clear and there was no widespread fraud. Over 60 lawsuits were lost by the Trump campaign. Didn’t the Trump supporters betray American democracy by attacking the fair transfer of power? Was this a betrayal or a vigorous contestation? 

Loyalty/betrayal/patriotism is a preferred moral foundation for conservatives. So the reporter might apply that to the insurrection. Do note that Moral Foundations like loyalty and authority do not work universally. Conservatives are more likely to show loyalty to conservatives (who they view as part of their in-group) and are more likely to respect conservative authorities.

(This example is drawn from the interview example 3. See later in this article.)

Why recognition helps: Recognition helps us offer ourselves (both the journalist and the subject) a moment of reflection and pivot to a line of questioning that may open up the conversation along additional moral frames. Otherwise, the moral frames in the speech have passed each other like ships in the night, or one side has just shut the conversation down or is persisting with a line of questioning and has run into a wall. 

Opening up means letting the conversation go respectfully into territory unscripted by prevailing large narratives, which include moral judgments that one side might hold about the other. In the third article, we’ll explore opportunities of using moral foundations when drafting stories on topics that involve increasing radicalization, extremist speech, and assertion of anti-democratic values.  As journalists, unless we are specifically aware of this frequency range, and its predictable meanings, we might miss the trees of speech from interview subjects and see only the forest. Or we may see the forest and the trees only if our moral values are the same as those who we are interviewing. 

Next, we will see a few examples showing how we might recognize moral foundations in the speech of politicians on culturally and politically divisive questions. Recognizing moral foundations means we’re beginning to tune in. 



Recognizing Moral Foundations in speech: KTVB interview of Idaho Lt. Gov Janice K. McGeachin

Watch this 4-minute Twitter video clip of a KTVB interview with Idaho Lt. Governor Janice K. McGeachin posted by journalist Sergio Olmos in March this year.

The full segment from that video is available below with the 4-minute segment beginning at 4:13.



First, no surprise in the reporter’s questions: Reporter Brian Holmes of KTVB Idaho repeatedly presses Idaho Lt. Gov Janice K. McGeachin about her appearing in a political rally with Nick Fuentes (white supremacist and anti-semite) and Vincent James. The reporter’s framing of the questions indicates that the mere fact that a government official and party functionary Lt Gov McGeachin’s speaking at a rally in which Nick Feuntes also spoke was itself deeply problematic. Fuentes’ background may need no introduction to you, but as a refresher, he is a well-known white supremacist in his twenties. This is what Wikipedia’s introduction to him says: 

Nicholas Joseph Fuentes is an American far-right[4] and white nationalist[5] political commentator and live streamer. The Anti-Defamation League has described Fuentes as a white supremacist.[6] A former YouTuber, his channel was permanently suspended in February 2020 for violating YouTube's hate speech policy.[7] Fuentes has described himself as an American nationalist,[8] Christian conservative,[6] and paleoconservative.[9] He has expressed antisemitic views[10] and Holocaust denial[11][12] and is opposed to women's right to vote.[13]  

So it isn’t surprising the reporter would want to put the Lt. Governor in a spot on her appearance. 

Next, McGeachin pushes back: She says it is “not fair” that mainstream media hits conservatives with claims of “guilt by association”. To which Holmes says the “association is not a good one”.  In saying the association is not a ‘good’ one, the reporter is making a moral judgment, but it is not easy to tell which moral foundation(s) he is drawing his judgment from. (Not all moral judgments are based on MFT alone. McGeachin again makes it about unfair treatment. She pointedly tells him not to associate her with Nick Fuentes being at the rally and asks the reporter to ask him only about “why she went there to talk to young conservatives”. 

And, the reporter simply presses on: Holmes sticks with his “respond to the guilty-by-association” charge. “If you knew about who Nick Fuentes is, would you have gone?”, he asks. 

And, McGeachin pushes back, again:  “This movement is so much bigger than one person. Who cares what Nick Fuentes is.  There are thousands and thousands of young conservatives fighting for the soul of our nation.” She goes on to expand her response into “wide open borders”, and how it is only a matter of time before “we lose who we are as a free country.” 

The reporter tries a different tack:  “People care that you are in association with him (Fuentes) because you shared a stage with him”, he asserts. But McGeachin pushes back again. 

In sum, the problem: Each person is talking from their moral frame. The journalist and the politician are talking past each other. Holmes is unable to get McGeachin to respond to his charge. She asserts it is not relevant by ignoring it and simply pivots to herself: “Ask who I am and why I went there. Don’t assassinate me or my character over what others say.” Homes on the other hand assumes she may bother enough about the “guilt by association” moral charge that she will take that head-on. She does not. 

LENSING: Parsing for moral foundations in the exchange 

Now let’s identify the moral frequencies McGeachin was communicating on. There were several points in the McGeachin - Holmes conversation where moral foundations were at play.  

  1. Fairness: When McGeachin says it is “not fair” that mainstream media hits conservatives with claims of “guilt by association”, she is invoking the fairness moral foundation. She is also invoking a related part of the fairness foundation which is proportionality. She claims that the “mainstream media” disproportionately targets conservatives with the “guilty by association charge”. 
  2. Liberty: McGeachin says the reporter should ask her “who I am and why I went there” because she only wants to talk about why she went to the rally “to talk to young conservatives”. She is trying to assert the Liberty foundation. It is her right to rally young conservatives to a cause and she prefers to speak about that.
  3. Loyalty: When McGeachin pivots to “there are thousands and thousands of young conservatives fighting for the soul of our nation”, she is speaking from the loyalty moral foundation, which as MFT’s theorists point out underlies “patriotism”. McGeachin is making a patriotism call here, saying young conservatives are responding to that call to “fight for the soul of the nation”. 
  4. Statements such as “we lose who we are as a free country” reflect feelings that could have multiple moral foundations driving them. One could be liberty, because of the use of the word “free”. This connotes the freedoms often highlighted as the First (speech) and Second Amendment (guns). They are also indicative of a feeling of threat over the loss of power and status for white people (authority/subversion) 

In contrast to this, the reporter’s speech had ONE moral assertion. 

Holmes repeatedly framed his case around “guilt by association”. By sharing a stage with violent extremists, he is asking Lt Gov McGeachin ‘Are you not guilty of supporting their harmful cause at the very least? The harm could be meant in a sense both to people and figuratively to American democracy writ large. Since political and government functionaries are expected to decry anti-democratic factions,  we could draw a speculative dotted line from the Care/harm foundation to the “guilt by association” judgment. 

From a conventional journalistic sense, there is nothing non-standard or out-of-norm about Holmes’ questioning at all. In a later section, we will use this same example and show how recognizing the other side’s moral foundations and grounding questions in them allows opportunities to open up the conversation. 



Recognizing Moral Foundations in speech: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes interviews Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Vice President Kamala Harris’ “Do not come” line at a press conference in Guatemala 

First, watch this brief clip: AOC Slams Biden Immigration Plan: ‘It’s Wrong And It’s Inhumane’



Summary, this is left-media interviewing a left-politician: Chris Hayes of MSNBC is asking AOC to respond to VP Kamala Harris’ (Democrat) statement in Guatemala where she asked people to not come to America, as part of a longer statement. Harris’ line struck counter-intuitively into the narratives at immigration’s political faultline. Classic to journalistic work is to take a line like that and ask one left-leaning politician to critique another. But AOC does not make this about Kamala Harris, or even the Biden administration’s border and asylum processing policies. She takes the bigger picture and brings history into it. 

For this example, let’s cut to the chase, i.e. go straight to parsing the moral foundations in AOC’s comments you just heard. 

LENSING: Parsing for moral foundations in the exchange 

    1. Care/Harm: When AOC characterizes the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers as ““inhumane”, by the Biden, Trump, and Obama administrations, she is speaking from the Care/harm foundation. It is about the pain she feels at the basic human level for the asylum seekers. She draws an analogy. People escaping violence in their own countries, and taking grave risks to reach the US are similar to “People stuck in a burning building jumping out”, she says. She also brings up the caging of people, not surprisingly and frames it around the design of US immigration policy. “We have chosen a carceral immigration policy, when we chose to gratuitously cage people seeking a better life.” All of this is AOC being empathetic to the plight of people fleeing their countries, which is part of the Care foundation.
    2. Fairness: This is where things get more interesting in the sense that you may not expect what is to come. To justify why she says that the US is morally called up to do better, AOC brings up the history of Central American conflicts that the US was involved in. “We contributed to regime change intervention and destabilization throughout Latin America”, says AOC. For her, the US contributed to destabilizing those nations and that has responsibility for what has led to the cycle of conflict today, so taking the narrow view lensed only on the present border policy is misplaced. She says most people do not want to leave their ancestral lands they are forced to, and the US had a role in it, and hence it is fair that the US does more. She also brings up climate change having disastrous consequences for farmers in Central America. She points out that even though farmers in Central America contributed the least to greenhouse gases, and the US has for decades been the world’s largest emitter, those farmers have been suffering the most. This is again a proportionate responsibility argument which is part of the Fairness moral foundation. It is US policy that is making people flee, says AOC, and hence criticizes VP Harris’ statement.  

- “We cannot show up there and say this is their fault and they are to blame”.  

- “We should be acknowledging our role”, “say what we’ve done”. 

- “How do we change our foreign policy so that we are no longer keeping developing countries forever in debt”. “Change our social, foreign and economic policies to prevent mass migrations”. 

AOC also brings up the fairness foundation in a historical comparison. “Imagine in New York, in Ellis Island”, she says, referring to decades when immigrants from Europe landed. “If people’s grandparents and great-grandparents went met with cages?” she goes on. 

What Chris Hayes does not do:  For his part, Chris Hayes lets AOC speak in full, and does not appear to be asking deeper and more penetrating questions. Most likely, this is because he shares moral values - Care/harm and Fairness – with AOC. Unless he is especially alert to the other Moral Foundations, it does not appear to him that there might even be another frequency to move AOC’s mind and speech into. 

So far, we looked at the case for journalists using Moral Foundations as a band of frequencies to tune into when their interview subjects are speaking.  We used two examples to show that recognizing moral foundations in replies to journalists is possible. 

Next, we will work through these interviews and go into how moral foundations recognition can help journalists ask new questions that would not otherwise emerge in the conversation. 


How to use MFT to ground questions in the other’s foundations 

Let’s start with expanding the two examples we’ve seen so far, before we go to new examples. 


EXAMPLE 1: Reframing Opportunities 

White Supremacy: KTVB interview of Idaho Lt. Gov Janice K. McGeachin


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In the earlier section, I showed that McGeachin pushes back at Brian Holmes hard in her responses using the Fairness, Liberty, and Loyalty moral foundations. Now let’s explore what happens if the reporter explores the conversation around the moral foundations identifiable in the Lt Governor’s speech. 

Fairness: When McGeachin says it is “not fair” that mainstream media hits conservatives with claims of “guilt by association”, she is invoking the fairness moral foundation. She is also invoking a related part of the fairness foundation which is proportionality. She claims that the “mainstream media” disproportionately targets conservatives with the “guilty by association charge”. 

Opportunity #1 Recognize: When we watch a politician get into fairness this way, we can call that out. Conservatives do attach importance to fairness, so it will help for the reporter to state the word fairness or proportionality first as an act of listening or recognition. 

Opportunity #2, Pivot: This then allows the reporter to pivot the conversation into a different set of questions, on the same moral foundation. Here are a few questions, hypothetical now, that a reporter could ask Lt Gov McGeachin: 

Ask: Yes, you are raising the question of fairness. Can you tell the listeners about what your thoughts are on Fuentes’ unfairness toward women? Clearly, you are not responsible for his views. Those are his. But you are a woman, and an elected official, and he has gone on record about not supporting the women’s right to vote. 

Ask: Is that not unfair to all the conservative women who came to your rally? They are listening to him too. How would you respond to your voters if they ask you how someone so unjust as Fuentes was at this rally? Given you clearly stand for women’s voting rights. 

Note: Liberals are more likely to endorse fairness as a moral than conservatives. Conservatives, like this politician, are more likely to endorse other moral foundations. So reframing fairness on the lines suggested above may still only attract a defensive reply. Being prepared to use the other moral foundations, as below, keeps a broad set of possibilities for conversation in play.

Liberty: When McGeachin says the reporter should ask her “who I am and why I went there”, because she only wants to talk about why she went to the rally to talk to young conservatives”, she is trying to assert that her liberty to speak at the rally cannot be subordinated to someone else’s presence. It is her right to rally young conservatives to a cause and she prefers to speak about that. She is raising the Liberty foundation. 

Opportunity #3, pivot: McGeachin is right to ask the reporter to ask her about why she went to the rally and what said to her audience there. It’s about her and her message for the young people attending. Here the reporter could pivot to the following questions: 

Ask: Yes, clearly the liberty to go to the rally and address young conservatives for your cause. And they are at full liberty to come and listen to you. Do you consider it a good use of your liberty to call out against values you don’t support? Clearly, you don’t support Feuntes’ values – that he speaks to the same audience about. White supremacy for instance. 

Ask: Do you consider it your liberty to speak your mind and alert your audience of young conservatives to who Nick Fuentes is? Are you at liberty to do so? Tell us what you think about this. 

Ask: (A slightly more aggressive follow-up) Or did you censor yourself on this?

(Conservatives often frame their criticism of speech regulations as “censorship”, so by turning the liberty moral foundation both left and right espouse into a question on censoring, it may open up a new area for the politician to speak about their own behavior.) 

Loyalty: When McGeachin pivots to “there are thousands and thousands of young conservatives fighting for the soul of our nation”, she is speaking from the loyalty moral foundation, which as MFT theorists point out underlies “patriotism”. McGeachin is making a patriotic call here, saying young conservatives are responding to that call to “fight for the soul of the nation”.  

Opportunity #4, go deeper: This is a chance to get the politician to expand on her thoughts in more detail instead of simply slamming her with the guilt-by-association charge. 

Ask: “Could you expand a little on what you mean by the soul of the nation?” 

(At this point she has to explain this much-invoked term “soul of the nation” and relate it to the topic of her speech at the rally. And there will be more moral foundations to recognize in it.) 

Opportunity #5, pivot:  Another follow-up on loyalty would be to ask McGeachin to expand on whom she considers patriots. The fact that she goes to say “we lose who we are as a free country” shows that she is likely to connect conservatives and (white conservatives in particular) as “true patriots” and others as not. 

Ask: There are young people fighting against massive injustices that the prison and 

police systems have done to Black people over decades. Would you consider Black 

people being loyal to American ideals of freedom and racial equality for everyone, by 

fighting for it? Would you consider their fight for justice as part of the fight for the soul of 

the nation? Would you consider them patriots too?”

In sum: These are questions along the moral foundation this interview subject espouses, and the reporter can use that for more questions pivot to a democratic angle: asking the Lt Gov to talk about what patriotism and “soul of the nation” mean in a multiracial democracy with the specific history America has. In which case, it makes it easier to ask the question about how a white supremacist has a role at a rally where she battles for the “soul of the nation”? In contrast to this, as we noted earlier, the reporter’s speech had ONE moral assertion around guilt-by-association. (Care/harm). 


EXAMPLE 2: Reframing Opportunities 

Immigration: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’ interviews Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Vice President Kamala Harris’ “Do not come” line at a Guatemala presser 

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Recap: As we noted earlier, Chris Hayes of MSNBC asked AOC to respond to VP Kamala Harris’ statement in Guatemala where she asked people to not come to America, as part of a longer statement. We identified two moral foundations in AOC’s response to Hayes, but the television anchor did not probe her responses. 

Care/Harm: When AOC characterizes the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers as “inhumane”, by the Biden, Trump, and Obama administrations, she is speaking from the Care/Harm foundation. It is about the pain she (like millions of Americans) feels at the basic human level at the treatment meted out to asylum seekers.  As a left-leader with passionate communication, AOC is very strong on the Care/harm foundation. She speaks morally persuasively about it. 

Opportunity #1, pivot: One line of questioning is to change the stakeholders or target

group of people she is considering when she talks from the Care/harm perspective:  

Ask: All of the low-skilled immigration into the country from the southern border is into 

America’s working class. Does it help American workers - people of color and white – to have constant wage pressure at the low-end, because of a continuing supply of labor? 

Ask: Does it hurt and harm American workers’ economic future when this happens? 

Ask: How do you connect trade, economic, and immigration policies and alleviate the harm that has been done to American workers too?” 

Fairness: AOC brings up the history of Central American conflicts that the US had a hand in decades ago. “We contributed to regime change intervention and destabilization throughout Latin America”, says AOC. She brings up the Fairness moral foundation when she says the following: “We cannot show up there and say this is their fault and they are to blame”.  “We should be acknowledging our role”, “say what we’ve done”. 

Opportunity #2, recognize: When AOC talks about America being unfair to Central American nations, Hayes can first of all call that out, saying that AOC is bringing up “fairness”. 

Opportunity #3, pivot: In bringing up the Ellis Island example and America being a land of immigrants, AOC is hinting at her support for permanently “open borders''. In which case one could ask the following line of questions: 

Ask:  “Is it fair for Americans here to have to share American resources forever with everyone? 

Ask: Does a nation-state not have limits to immigration? How would you respond to your voters if they ask how to admit asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds and yet not disproportionately overload our system? What is a fair and humane approach to immigration limits each year or each decade according to you? 

Ask: What would you trade off and what would you not?


More examples


EXAMPLE 3: Reframing Opportunities 

Elections and Masculinity: Mike Allen of Axios interviews Senator Josh Hawley on HBOMAX


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Watch this roughly eight-minute interview where Mike Allen, Axios co-founder, is getting Senator Josh Hawley to respond about two separate issues: elections and masculinity.

Exchange on ‘20 elections and the Jan 6 ’21 insurrection: Allen reminds Hawley about the “indelible image” of Hawley’s fist pump of solidarity to protesters and Trump supporters outside the Capitol on January 6th morning. He asks Hawley about elections and the false allegations of fraud. 

Hawley immediately says “there’s fraud in every election.” Allen interjects and shifts the frame to “widespread fraud”. He reminds Hawley that Trump’s attorney general William Barr debunked the idea of “widespread fraud” in December 2020. And yet, polls show a lot of Republicans still doubt that there was no widespread fraud, says Allen to Hawley. This is a good setup, because it lets Allen pop the question “Does that worry you?” 

Hawley, reframes: Hawley thinks for a moment and then reframes quickly. He says there is a long standing tradition in America of both parties “vigorously contesting elections”. He equates Bush v. Gore of 2000 with Trump’s refusal to concede Biden’s win in 2020. He tries to get away from the problem of his giving credence to false claims of fraud to a new frame of “vigorously contesting elections”. 

Allen does not push back on the inapplicability of the “vigorously contesting elections” frame to January 6th. “So you’d like to see more of it?”, he asks Hawley. Hawley now has a chance to say “I didn’t say that”, and simply says “that’s (vigorous contestation) is just a fact of our elections.” Hawley thus is able to place a legitimate-sounding tenor to his response. It is as if to say that the Republican party’s outrage must be seen in the context of America’s tradition of vigorously contesting elections and nothing else. 

Moral Foundations in the exchange: Allen is raising his questions on the moral foundation of Fairness (as fairly run and contested elections). Hawley may have calculated that responding on a fairness grounding would be difficult, so he cleverly switched frames to “vigorous contestation” to bring up a new point that Allen may not have expected. “Vigorous contestation” does not easily parse into moral foundations. Mostly likely it could be seen coming from liberty and preferences for markets and competition. 

Opportunity #1, go deeper: One approach would be take on the morality of the frame

“vigorous contestation” itself around fairness. 

Ask: Can you expand on “vigorous contestation”? All election claims were settled before 

Jan 6. Do you support vigorous contestation using false claims and conspiracy theories? 

Is that fair? Or do you support contestation only until the facts are settled?  

Opportunity #2, pivot:  In addition to fairness, one moral foundation applicable to the insurrection of January 6th is betrayal/loyalty. It could be asserted that true loyalty to the idea of a democratic nation is to support the peaceful transfer of power to the candidate who had won, once all litigations and recounts were settled. Instead Senator Hawley and other Trump-supporting leaders inspired protestors to feel that Biden had cheated Trump out of a win. 

Ask: You said that those who attacked the Capitol that day were criminals and must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. You are framing it as an individual crime warranting routine prosecution. Can you talk about patriotism? Did they show any loyalty to the core American democratic ideal of peaceful transfer of power? Did they not betray that American ideal? Your thoughts? 

Exchange on men and America: Allen continues to interview Hawley about his comments regarding the “left’s attack on men'' at the National Conservatism conference in Florida (2021 Nov). When Allen asks him “What’s a man to you? Paint a picture”, Hawley frames his response using the words “as a conservative” himself. He says: “A man is a father, a husband, takes responsibility…”. Hawley talks about calling men back to responsibility. He takes issue with the left, and says that the left is attacking American men and calling them systemically responsible and that they are oppressive. Hawley talks about how the policy of deindustrialization has partly led to 16 million men without jobs, and how that in turn has led them to watch porn, instead of taking responsibilities like putting bread on the table. He then also blames the left for all this including the social messages (progressive agenda) being taught in school. 

Moral Foundations:  When Hawley talks about the role of men, he uses the words “father, husband, take responsibility”, etc. Hawley is bemoaning that men without jobs lose their sense of place, power and identity. But he does not acknowledge the battles women are having to fight for everyday for equality in America today. That is usually a signal of support for men having a hierarchically higher location with more authority over families, the destinies of women and their families. This parses into the Authority (hierarchy) moral foundation, which grounds many conservative concerns more than that of liberals. 

Opportunity #1, recognize, pivot: Hawley talked about calling men “back to responsibility”. He sees men as providers and their self-esteem coming from paid work and putting bread on the table. This is a chance to ask him for his support for investments in reskilling men who lose their jobs to deindustrialization. 

Ask: You are calling men back to responsibility. Do you see it as your responsibility to push for universities and colleges where deindustrialization is a chronic trend to get the institutions to draw men back into reskilling for other jobs in the economy? 

Ask: What are your ideas for supporting more investment (private sector or public) for pathways to re-employment? Is this an area universities can do more? 

Opportunity #2, switch: Another option is to switch Hawley to a fairness or equality frame, since conservatives do value fairness and non-discrimination as moral values. Ask him to comment on women. 

Ask: You bring up the damage to men that America’s policies have caused. What about women? Men have long held more power and written the laws and rules. Data that shows once women have a child or two, they lose a couple of years in their careers. They still do not get the same maternity benefits that their counterparts get in other developed economies. Women who want careers and economic independence have to pay a price for their aspirations. As a lawmaker, you do not bring this up when you otherwise bring up how the deindustrialization of jobs has hurt men?  Is that fair to them? Have men as a group (both conservatives and liberals) in America been fair to women?

Summary of the MFT opportunity for Journalistic Interviewing 

Having seen some examples, here is a quick summary of the opportunity. 

  1. Identify moral frames in the speech of politicians reiterating simplistic narratives to their supporters 
  2. Recognize our own morals as human journalists  (liberals, conservatives and libertarian journalists..) 
  3. Change the types of questions being asked of politicians in interviews 

Outline of key steps to navigate a conversation

Treat this advisory as an experimental method to produce a quiver of questions around a wider set of moral foundations recognized by listening to the other person.

  1. Tune into the other side’s moral framing or signals. This is a literacy effort around MFT for journalists to use as a tool.
  2. Call it out in actual words, so they know the reporter listened
  3. Pivot from your own moral frame to the interviewee’s. Respond with open-ended questions, at best constrained within a democratic context 
  4. Or switch the interviewee from their default moral frame to a different one they might also have some grounding on. 

What this advisory is not about

  1. This advisory is not offering a scripted way to walk through interviews. Just as there are a million different ways to write stories, there are hundreds of ways to frame and ask questions. This advisory narrows that work using theory proven elsewhere in social psychology. 
  2. This advisory is not a substitute for the creativity of the journalist to integrate MFT vocabulary into the conversation in their own way. Examples are starting points for illustration only. 
  3. Not all moral judgments people are mappable to Moral Foundations in MFT per se. There is no need to assume MFT’s list of morals are  the only ones or always “in play".
  4. Directly starting with MFT recognition may seem disparate, like artificially bucketing people and morals into one group or another. Your opening questions could be on higher common ground:  “How do you see your responsibility for X or Y or Z?” Invite the politician to use their own moral vocabulary to respond. Then parse for MFT morals.



As we noted at the beginning, using Moral Foundations Theory will first of all help the journalist let the other side know they are listening. It opens up a new opportunity for journalists to ground their questions in the moral foundations of the politician they are interviewing rather than their own. It will allow journalists interviewing politicians to have a greater range of questions in the conversation rather than the interviewee simply sticking to their guns. Ultimately, this may allow the possibility of holding leaders more accountable to the values they espouse in public. 


Our thanks to the American Press Institute for sponsoring this work. Our thanks also to: Associate Professor Kathryn Bruchmann (social psychology) for reviewing this material and offering several suggestions. David DeCosse, Director for Religious and Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics Programs, and Journalism and Media Ethics Councilmembers Martha Mendoza and Craig Newmark provided feedback. 


Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029–1046.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Voelkel, J. G., & Feinberg, M. (2018). Morally Reframed Arguments Can Affect Support for Political Candidates. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(8), 917–924.