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The Fake News Era Demands Ethics in Government Communication

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An audience member holds a fake news sign during a President Donald Trump campaign rally in Michigan on April 28. An audience member holds a fake news sign during a President Donald Trump campaign rally in Michigan on April 28. Paul Sancya/AP

Good government requires good communication. Only when the public receives timely and relevant facts about government activities can transparency and accountability be achieved. The public servants who provide that information—agency spokespeople, communications specialists, speech writers, social media experts—are a critical link in supporting our democratic processes and helping citizens access services.

Sadly, we have seen too many instances lately where elected officials and high-profile government communicators have failed in this regard.

Almost daily, President Trump uses Twitter to fuel a bombastic narrative, mixed with concepts of “alternative facts” or claims of “fake news,” to drive his agenda. Add to that a nearly complete absence of fact checking on the part of the White House, and it is no wonder that when the White House press secretary recently corrected misinformation she had provided, many were left thinking, “it’s about time.”

A recent Pew Research Center report, “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017,” shows trust in government remains near historic lows, with just 18 percent of respondents indicating they trust government in Washington to do what is right always or most of the time.

If that level of distrust is applied to communication about government, where then does the public turn for truthful information about government? The media?

A recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey revealed Americans believe 62 percent of the news they consume via television, newspapers and radio is biased, and that 80 percent of the news they consume via social media is biased. They also believe 44 percent of news on television, radio and in newspapers is inaccurate, with 64 percent in social media being inaccurate.

Finding the facts about government has never been harder for the average citizen. And democracy—government of the people, by the people and for the people—is suffering.

The need for ethical government communication is longstanding, and so too is the need to discern publicity from information that serves the public interest. Recognition of that need led to the 1913 Gillett Amendment, which prohibits the use of appropriated funds to “persuade” the American public or to hire “publicity experts.” Why? Because the government exists to serve the people, not its own interests, and timely facts, not publicity, are what serve the public interest.

Yet even with the Gillett Amendment protections, the need for a true north in government communication has never been clearer.

The critical work of government communicators requires adherence to core values, including honesty, accountability and transparency, to build and retain the trust of those with whom they communicate. Given the current condition of the information environment it has perhaps never been more important for government communicators to embody a code of ethics to guide their work and their agencies’ communications.

Members of the National Association of Government Communicators, as a condition of their membership, adhere to a code of ethics that states, “truth is sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service; and that each citizen has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about the activities, policies and people of the agencies comprising his or her government.” NAGC’s code of ethics provides members with 16 guiding principles including requirements to, “take swift and effective action to prevent the public release of false or misleading information; not knowingly provide false or misleading information to the public; and never lie to the media or public.”

Not every government communicator is a member of NAGC, but those who are provide counsel to leadership, speak truth to power and serve as their agencies’ communications true north. By adhering to our code of ethics, our members, at the local, county, state, tribal and federal levels are leading the way toward good communication that supports good government.

There is much that is broken in the process of government communication, as well as in the process of reporting on government. One fix would be to require government communicators to champion the premise that the truth is sacred. Many do so now. We need more. Good government and the public interest demand it.

Chris O'Neil is president of the National Association of Government Communicators.

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