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.
Graphic: Your ghostwriter online