The Ghostwriting Ethics Scale


The ease with which former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ op-ed denigrating opponents of the Manchin-Toomey background check provision was accepted as her words and sentiment has prompted me to focus again on a persistent ethics issue of long-standing: ghost-written articles, op-eds, articles and other printed statements. This is the epitome of a slippery slope issue, because finding the dividing line between what is acceptable ethically and harmfully deceptive is so difficult, most people don’t even bother to try to make ethical distinctions. We have to, though, and the Giffords piece shows why.

A published opinion piece by a prominent individual can have several uses, intentional and otherwise:

  • It can lend credibility to the views expressed by those view being articulated and presumably endorsed by someone well-regarded, respected and known.
  • It can bolster the efforts of interest groups, corporations and political parties to advance their agendas, by attributing the ideas and arguments contained in the article to someone perceived as more trustworthy and objective.
  • It can cause individuals to read about a topic they normally would not, out of interest in and admiration for the supposed author.
  • It can build respect and support for the individual credited as the author, by representing him or her as articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, or witty.

Whether these goals are achieved honestly and fairly or through deception depends on a dizzying number of factors, which will be present in various degrees and relative proportions in any ghostwritten opinion piece. Among them:

  • Whether the idea for the op-ed or other opinion piece originated with the author, or with other interested parties.
  •  The degree to which the named author participated in the drafting, writing, and final form of the piece.
  • Whether the author listed was paid or compensated for putting his on her name on the article.
  • The degree to which the views expressed are congruent with the views of the author
  • Whether the named author would be capable of articulating the opinion in substantially similar terms
  • Whether the intended audience for the piece is misled regarding any of the above.

Thus there is an obvious ethical hierarchy of ghostwritten articles and opinions, though an uncredited writer for a work credited to another is presumptively deceptive and thus unethical. Recently, President Obama’s twitter account was taken over by Organizing For Action, the supposedly non-White House run political action group that morphed out of the President’s campaign apparatus.

The President’s account has 29 million followers, many of which, presumably, follow because the President’s name is on the tweets, and he has, in the past, genuinely authored some. No public announcement followed the hand-off to Organizing For Action, however, prompting  Philip Bump of the Atlantic to complain that it was if “the president, mid-conversation, handed his phone to a telemarketer who does a great Obama impression. Or, to be more accurate, one telemarketer — the campaign — handed the phone to another one.” CNN asked some experts about the ethics of this, and got varied answers. Jerry Lanson, a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston, said that transparency is key: “If you’re transparent you’re off the hook. If the Obama administration is up front that the account has been farmed out, then it’s up to the public to decide if they want to follow @BarackObama.” Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was tougher, adding that readers ought to be able to safely assume that anything coming out of @BarackObama are the views of the President, “and not some affiliated activist group.”

I think these standards (which the President’s now wholly ghostwritten Twitter account does not meet) are good ones to evaluate any ghostwritten opinion, including op-eds, blog posts and tweets. Transparency—Is the audience being misled about who wrote it?—and integrity—Are these really the views of the author?—are critical. By these standards, the Giffords op-ed fails miserably. We have no idea to what extent she approved of the text or even whether she was able to read and understand it. While it is fair to assume she is in favor of her party’s gun regulation efforts, whether “her” harsh attack on opponents was really her own sentiments or those of an anonymous ghostwriter, we do not know. Congresswoman Giffords, pre-shooting, was not a practitioner of uncivil or denigrating rhetoric. Maybe the bullet through her brain changed her, or maybe someone put words in her mouth. I think readers have a right to know which.

Here, subject to future tweaking, is the Ethics Alarms Ghostwritten Opinion Piece Ethics Scale, from most ethical to least ethical.

1. Fully transparent authorship, with the assisting writer listed with the well-known or prominent author.

2. Opinion pieces re-written, edited or “punched-up” by professional writers from outlines, conversations or rough drafts by the named author, and subsequently approved by the named author.

3. Opinion pieces written by others subsequently reviewed and approved, with edits, by the named author, with whose knowledge, views and reasoning the piece is completely consistent.

4. Ghostwritten opinion pieces that exceed the named author’s expertise and sophistication in the topic, but are generally consistent with his or her views.

5. Opinion pieces written by others for the benefit of an interest group, which the named author endorses by allowing it to appear over his or her name.

6. Opinion pieces written by others for the benefit of an interest group, which the named author endorses by allowing it to appear over his or her name in return for monetary or other compensation or benefits.

7. Ghostwritten blogs and twitter feeds, which misuse the appeal of such supposedly personal on-line communications.

8. Opinion pieces written for individuals who are incapable of sufficiently understanding or reviewing the text to give informed and voluntary consent.

That’s right: I think the Giffords op-ed lies at the bottom of the ghostwriting ethics barrel.


Source: CNN

Graphic: Your ghostwriter online

25 thoughts on “The Ghostwriting Ethics Scale

  1. Interesting. Why do you think she is incapable of giving consent, or even understanding what was written? How do we know the piece was not written by Giffords herself, or are we just assuming because of her speech problems, she is incapable of doing anything in any other arena? She seems, in interviews at least, aware and lively. It is just a bit offensive to automatically assume, based on no evidence, that she is incapable of authoring the piece, and to take it even further, that she cannot even give consent to have the piece published under her name.

    • This is a laughable position, a full Jumbo. Read the text of her testimony before Congress. Watch any of the interviews with her, like Diane Swayer’s. Why do you think she is incapable of giving consent, or understanding what was written? Because nothing in her words or demeanor suggests that she is able at this stage to form or understand such complex thoughts and sentences. Because the tone of the article was far more combative and uncivil than any public statements she made prior to her injury. Because she is led around by her husband, and speaks in short sentences of five one or two syllable words. Because she’s missing part of her brain. Here was her testimony:

      “Speaking is difficult. I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you.”

      That is simpleminded and child-like. Why would anyone assume someone capable of no better than that would be able to write, in less than 48 hours, an op-ed with sections like…”They will try to hide their decision behind grand talk, behind willfully false accounts of what the bill might have done — trust me, I know how politicians talk when they want to distract you — but their decision was based on a misplaced sense of self-interest. I say misplaced, because to preserve their dignity and their legacy, they should have heeded the voices of their constituents.”

      Your denial is a good case study of the degree of self deception one’s fervent desires can generate.

  2. I’ve already noted that she cannot speak very well. But by all accounts, she has all her normal comprehension back. Ability to speak /=intelligence. If that were the case, Stephen Hawking would be considered an imbecile. We don’t know what her writing abilities are, and I think you are doing a great disservice to disabled people everywhere by assuming that difficulties in one area automatically means that she is incapable of having enough agency and intelligence to at least give informed and voluntary consent to something written under her name.

    • What “accounts”? There are no such accounts. The doctors aren’t talking, nor should they. I have searched for credible accounts of her cognitive abilities, and there just aren’t any that are trustworthy. It is all speculation.

      • Most of her friends and family say that her comprehension is normal. She seems aware enough and during interviews certainly seems to comprehend what is said. If it’s all speculation anyway, why immediately go straight to the conclusion that she has no agency, nor even awareness of what is written under her name? What clues we have show that she is at least aware.

        But like I said, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that you are espousing that just because a disabled person has some difficulty espousing their thoughts in one area, they are unintelligent overall. People with aphasia are not stupid, and even if they can’t communicate well in one way, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unable to communicate well in another. You have robbed Giffords of her agency overall just because she cannot speak very well.

        • People who have trouble finding words when speaking usually (though not always) have the same trouble while writing. And she does not have aphasia, she has structural brain damage, and it goes far further than that.

          What her friends say about Giffords are part PR and part loyalty—I have no idea how accurate they are, but they are certainly not reliable accounts.

          • Giffords definitely has aphasia. For more information about aphasia, it can be found here: But it says in short, Stroke is the most common cause of aphasia, but it can also be caused by traumatic brain injury (such as from a car crash or a gunshot wound) or disease processes such as tumours. Almost 25% of people who have a stroke will experience some degree of aphasia. Aphasia is seen approximately equally in men and women. Because stroke occurs more commonly in older individuals, we tend to see more aphasia in older people than in younger people. However, young adults, teens and even children can have a stroke or brain injury that results in aphasia.

            Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, famously developed aphasia after a gunshot wound to the head in January, 2011. Her interactions with her speech-language pathologist are described in her book “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope”.

            The article describes aphasia as, The range of difficulties for people with aphasia is vast. For some people, speaking might be extremely difficult but understanding what they hear might be relatively easy. Others may have limited ability to understand speech. Some may be able to read better than they can understand, whereas others may lose the ability to read entirely. Many people with aphasia will not be able to write, but others may be able to write better than they can talk…

            But based on her public appearances alone, where while she obviously struggled to talk, she just as obviously could comprehend what was asked of her, I see no reason to assign her to #8 on your list. She could have written the op-ed herself, had someone punch up the piece, or reviewed and approved an article written by someone else. We don’t know. But to me, Giffords, just from observing her during interviews, obviously has awareness, comprehension, and agency. Just because she is disabled doesn’t mean that she lacks those things.

            • You are intentionally misreading my statements. My point was not that she literally doesn’t have aphasia, but that “aphasia” doesn’t begin to describe her problems. It is like saying someone with dementia is “forgetful.” The way you (and Barry use) use it, the implication is that there is nothing wrong with Giffords cognition other than the fact that she has difficulty finding words. That would not explain her sentence structure, for example. It goes beyond mere word identification.

              Nina Zeldis, PhD, who taught rehabilitation medicine at Israel’s Tel Aviv University for more than 20 years was consulted by the media while Giffords was earlier in the rehab process, and noted that people who, like Giffords, have suffered damage to the left side of the brain tend to have difficulty speaking and understanding speech, difficulty reading, increased impulsivity, lack of emotional control, decreased problem-solving ability, diminished long-term planning and problems with hand/eye coordination. Since they tend to have those problems, and everything we have been allowed to see of Giffords is consistent with those problems, maintaining that there is no reason to suspect that she has those those problems, as you do, but merely has “aphasia” is simply irrational.

              • I’m t sure what we are arguing about here. Most of the things you have pointed out, including sentence structure problems while speaking, can be chalked up to aphasia. We haven’t seen a lack of emotional control, decreased problem solving ability, nor diminished long-term planning.

                But my point still stands that even if she had all those problems, there is very little to show that she did not have awareness in writing the piece, or allowing the piece to be written under her name. People with aphasia, and impulsivity problems still have agency after all, and there is little to suggest in the interviews of her that I’ve seen that her overall cognitive awareness has been greatly diminished. I feel that is patronizing of disabled people in the extreme to automatically assume that Giffords had no understanding of the piece, or that she was taken advantage of in some way by its publication.

              • And, as I noted in an earlier reply, aphasia is more than just a “difficulty finding words.”

                From above: For some people, speaking might be extremely difficult but understanding what they hear might be relatively easy. Others may have limited ability to understand speech. Some may be able to read better than they can understand, whereas others may lose the ability to read entirely. Many people with aphasia will not be able to write, but others may be able to write better than they can talk…

    • It isn’t the ability to speak. It is the ability to form coherent and complex thoughts. Hawking may not be able to speak, but he communicates complex thoughts through writing and technological aids. If Giffords can write complex thoughts on paper or communicate them other ways, that is one thing. That ability has not be demonstrated. If SHE can’t express the thoughts in words or by other means, where are they coming from? They are coming from others and without the ability to express such thoughts, she is incapable of plausibly endorsing them any more than my 5 year old is.

      • Giffords is obviously coherent. She struggles to come up with words, but is obviously aware and responds to questions, even complicated ones. One can see that much just from interviews. If every time she does write down a complex thought, or has someone transcribe it for her, it is automatically assumed not to be truly her thoughts, how can she prove the thoughts are really hers? And should the burden of proof be on disabled people to prove that they are competent, and capable of speaking for themselves? That burden should be on her detractors. Disabled people should be afforded the same dignity as anyone else, and to assume that facts not evidence, and indeed asserted otherwise by Giffords and those closest to her, strikes me as very discriminatory. Should we apply this rule to all disabled people, or just ones whose stances we disagree with?

        • You answered your own question. If other people have to write her thoughts for her because she can’t, they they aren’t hers. If she is incapable of initiating the thought, you can’t assume it is hers. If she is incapable of expressing it, you cannot say she has it. I can explain the Standard Model to my 5-year old son and ask him if he understands it and he will say “yes”. This doesn’t mean he understands it. Only if he can explain it to me in his own words or by his own expression can I know that he knows it. I am almost positive he doesn’t understand quantum chromodynamics, but he will look intently as I explain it and say that he understands it. You are assuming the facts. You are the one with no evidence. The truth is, she may be able to reason and understand, but if she can’t communicate it, there is no ability to know what she understands or how well she understands it. He handlers are just guessing and seeing what they want.

          Do you regularly denigrate people who disagree with you? Do you regularly insinuate that those who don’t hold your opinion are heaping indignity on the disabled? What “complex” thoughts has she written down? Has she written down a detailed gun control program, explaining the basis of its effectiveness and weighing the impact on Constitutional rights, or has she written “act now, be bold!”.

          • You answered your own question. If other people have to write her thoughts for her because she can’t, they they aren’t hers. If she is incapable of initiating the thought, you can’t assume it is hers. If she is incapable of expressing it, you cannot say she has it.

            Well that’s the very thing we are debating, correct? Giffords has written an article, and you and the author of this blog have automatically assumed that it cannot be her thoughts and words, because she has speech aphasia. She isn’t a dog or some other animal, her “handlers” are not just seeing and guessing. You have assumed that because she has problems communicating in one arena, she cannot communicate in all of them. When she does show a complexity of thought in another medium, you immediately assume that the thoughts are not hers. You are the one assuming facts not in evidence. It’s akin to assuming deaf people are stupid because they can’t speak.

            • No, you are assuming that she wrote it herself, which is a much more tenuous assumption. In her interviews and testimony, she has not been shown to be capable of the writing that you are attributing to her. You are assuming things you haven’t seen. I am basing my assumption off observation. Which is on firmer ground? You ask me the old questions “who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?” and ask me to believe you. I believe my eyes. You tell me that she has shown complexity of thought in another medium. What medium? You have no proof of that. You have to fall back on personal attacks and suggest that I think deaf people are stupid.

              So, you have accused me of treating disabled people with indignity and now you have accused me of thinking that deaf people are stupid. Why can you just show me some evidence? Because you don’t have any. If you had any, you would have presented it. You have no argument so you disparage others.

              • In her interviews and testimony, she has not been shown to be capable of the writing that you are attributing to her.

                We are just going around in circles here. You are basically saying because her speech is impaired, she is incapable of expressing herself well in another medium, like writing. I point out that we have no proof of that assumption, and that it is discriminatory to assume that this is the case. You then point out again that she can’t talk very well (which no one has said she does), so therefore she can’t write well either. Rinse, lather, repeat.

                • No, I am stating what has been proven. You are the one without proof. If you have proof that she can express complex thoughts in writing, say it! Surely her supporters would say that her speech may be impaired, but she can express her thoughts fully in writing if that were true Have they? I haven’t seen it and since you haven’t put any evidence in here to back your claim, I am pretty sure you haven’t either. You are seeing what you want to see or you are propping up this charade because it suits your ideology. You then impugn my character when I call you on your deception and you have no other way to refute me. You accuse people of being bigoted and discriminatory to shout them down. You are the thought police, accusing people of hate thought when they say something inconvenient. You don’t want people to think or reason, because they won’t see it your way. To ask for proof of competence is discriminatory? That attitude is what gets people killed in places like West, Texas.

  3. Can you imagine the firestorm that would erupt if the GOP paraded someone around who had that severe brain damage to score politcal points?

    • Bill, you are right, of course. The Gabrielle Snerd show is yet another example of a double standard that is promoted for partisan purposes. The sleazy exploitation of Giffords’ debilitated condition is so obvious, it’s insulting to any of us with debilitations that could be similarly exploited. The confirmation bias problem is not yours or mine, but her supporters’.

  4. Great solution to a very significant problem. I’ve always wanted to know why everyone assumes Al Gore actually wrote a long book about the environment, whatever it was called. I can’t see him having any interest in even writing a short letter.

    • Although I agree that Al Gore most likey didnt write the book, he does have a background in writting journalism from when he was in Vietnam.

  5. You should add #9. Plagiarized opinion piece written for people who are incapable of being truly responsible for the content.

    (I just wanted to correct the oversight for when this one pops up, probably next week)

  6. “Maybe the bullet through her brain changed her, or maybe someone put words in her mouth. I think readers have a right to know which.”
    Not to be a sexist or anything but I didn’t think she was the author simply because it reads like something written by a man; an angry man.
    Perhaps a man like Mark Kelly.
    Reading the op-ed that was so obvious I actually lost focus on the point of it.

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