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Journalism, ethical fading and ethical blindness during the Trump era


Published onApr 07, 2024
Journalism, ethical fading and ethical blindness during the Trump era

The ethical function of journalism is clear: seek truth and report it, minimise harm, be fair and impartial, act independently, be accountable and hold the powerful to account. However, most journalism during President Donald Trump’s tenure failed to fulfil its ethical role. Mainstream American journalists are now chastising themselves, reassessing how they would better handle another such presidency. But is it conceivable that journalists were collectively afflicted by ethical fading and blindness? Whereas this phenomenon is often employed in discussing business ethics, Susan Stos considers the notion in relation to journalism.

Ethical fading

Tenbrunsel and Messick introduce the concept of ethical fading which they describe as ‘the process by which the moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications’ (2004: 224). Ethical fading operates subconsciously, that is, we are unaware that it is occurring but become mindful of it when pointed out to us. The idea is used extensively to understand the abrogation of ethics in business and organisations, and helps to explain why people fail to act in accordance with their personal ethics. Tenbrunsel and Messick assert that psychology and behavioural economics are pivotal in understanding ethical fading, and central to that is self-deception.

There are a variety of methods in which we can delude ourselves: motivated blindness, moral disengagement and cognitive biases are some of them, as well as the mental frames we construct (ibid: 225).

Motivated blindness

Motivated blindness occurs when we overlook unethical behaviour if the result is favourable (Ethics and Compliance Initiative 2015). Motivated blindness also covers conflicts of interest and ethical problems at arm’s length, for example, work that a company outsources. Although there may be environmental concerns or human rights issues, if it is conducted from a distance there is a sense that ethical responsibility is nullified (ibid).

Moral disengagement

Moral disengagement includes moral justification, i.e. assuring ourselves that the end justifies the means. Euphemistic language – ‘downsizing’ to mean lay-offs or ‘collateral damage’ to mean death – avoids the emotion and implicit ethical obligation. We may use advantageous comparison, telling ourselves that everyone behaves as we do, or that we are not as unscrupulous as some others. Moral agency is diffused or obscured when we say that an action is a team decision or we are simply following orders. We also minimise harm done to others by blaming the victim (ibid).

Cognitive bias

Cognitive biases are shortcuts in thinking, especially relevant in journalism due to the abundance of information being constantly processed and the speed required to attend to it. It is another way in which we deceive ourselves. There are dozens of biases, including partisan bias, when media coverage is slanted towards or against particular people or issues, and gatekeeping bias, when stories are filtered based on ideology. Confirmation bias is a particularly insidious thought process in which we tend to seek out or put more weight into information or concepts that confirm what we already believe (Bradshaw 2020).

Mental frames

As if that were not enough to circumvent ethics, there are also frames – mental structures that help make sense of a complex world. As with any frame, whatever is inside is highlighted, with blind spots outside (Ethics and Compliance Initiative 2015). If ethics are not part of the picture from the beginning, they are easily disregarded.

Ethical blindness

Palazzo, Hoffrage and Krings (2012) develop the existing theory of ethical blindness. To some degree it extends Tenbrunsel and Messick’s foundational work, with one big difference: Tenbrunsel and Messick state that ethical fading is dependent on self-deception in which we subconsciously find ways to do what serves us best while deluding ourselves that we are moral people (2004: 225). Ethical blindness, as Palazzo, Hoffrage and Krings describe it, is temporal and unconscious, when the ethical elements are seemingly non-existent for the duration. The subject eventually ‘wakes up’ after the fact to the reality of what has transpired (2012: 325).

Palazzo, Hoffrage and Krings believe that ethical blindness is more likely to occur when particular pressures, contexts, social and psychological forces act together with our mental frames. They also point out that the more rigid the framing, the more likely it is that ethical blindness will ensue, as individuals become unable to access their moral functioning and disengage from the ethical aspects of their decisions, thus deviating from their own principles and values (ibid: 324).

Pressures of journalism

A journalist’s job is to gather the news and disseminate information while political journalism resides within a much narrower frame, and that is to report on the machinations of government and to ensure the functioning of democracy. If that pursuit should become difficult, dangerous and problematic, the framing, of necessity, becomes even more narrow and rigid (Palazzo and Hoffrage n.d.).

The forces and contexts in the world of political journalism in the United States include pressures encountered in situ – getting the story under sometimes punishing circumstances; within their own organisations, such as time constraints and the ‘bottom-line’ commercial pressure of creating traffic and getting clicks; and the institutional conditions set by the presidency, for example, the confines of the press corps offices and the arduous, all-consuming schedule. If the institutional context is dominated by someone who does not follow the rules, threatens, bullies and humiliates, the probability of rigid framing and ethical blindness is high (ibid). A strong anti-government conviction is often the rationale for rule-breaking, and fear is a considerable motivator for ethical blindness, magnified when the future is unclear (Palazzo, Hoffrage and Krings 2012: 330). Group pressures within the White House press corps also make it difficult for these journalists to develop alternative options of behaviour, i.e. different frames.

Ethics disregarded

Upon considering what journalists’ ethics should be, and what they became under Trump’s presidency, it is clear that ethics were abrogated on many counts, regardless of political persuasion. In fact, journalism ethics fell into such a deleterious state that the public then became divided along partisan political lines. The Edelman Trust barometer states that its most significant finding of 2022 is that ‘people are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on’ and adopt a ‘default emotion’ of distrust of someone from across the political spectrum (Edelman 2022).

Unusual times

Trump’s rhetoric during his campaign summoned fear, pessimism and suspicion as he focused on crime and violence, poverty, illegal immigration, jobs being ‘killed’, drugs and Islamic terrorism. To this, Americans responded by becoming more cynical and anxious about their lives (Homolar and Scholz 2019). He invoked fear with his false notion of an America in crisis. He spoke of the country as in a ‘state of decline’ and his campaign slogan was to ‘make American great again’, the implication that it no longer was (ibid: 348).

There was no perceivable difference after his inauguration. Generally, a new political administration emulates the behaviours, values and beliefs espoused by the institution of the presidency. This reduces uncertainty in the populace, creates legitimacy and a predictability that people’s rights are sacrosanct (Palazzo and Hoffrage n.d.). However, from the first day, the Trump White House insisted on the government’s interpretations of events, although inconsistent with what the rest of the world perceived. The size of the crowd at the inauguration is a case in point. Photographic evidence reveals a significantly smaller crowd than those in attendance at President Obama’s inauguration, yet the White House press secretary insisted otherwise: ‘This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe’ (Spicer 2017).

Trump continued to flout the norms of presidential behaviour with his lack of common civility; his racism, xenophobia and misogyny; his continued involvement in his own business affairs; his attacks on science and even in his undermining of government institutions (Pfiffner 2021: 2). It is human nature to experience apprehension during change when the rules of behaviour appear to alter as much as they did, precipitating an unconscious fear that civilisation as we know it would cease to exist, and the thin veneer of society could erode (Palazzo and Hoffrage n.d.). It results in a panic that people are not in control of their own destiny and a fear that there is no accountability (ibid).

Journalists at risk

Within weeks of his presidency, Trump stepped up his campaign to de-legitimise the news media. There is always a degree of antipathy between the presidency and the press, but Trump took it to an unrivalled level, calling them ‘human scum’, ‘the enemy of the people’, dishonest, corrupt, low life bad people, and ‘some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet’ (Quealy 2021).

The job of a White House reporter is a coveted one. But during the Trump presidency, there was a growing realisation that the White House press corps had to band together to defend the role of a free press as well as themselves against attacks by the President and his followers (mprnews 2018). Dean Basquet, former executive editor of The New York Times, accused Trump of putting his reporters’ lives at risk and for the first time ever, the networks provided security detail for their journalists covering Trump campaigns (Waterson 2019). His personal attacks on specific reporters resulted in harassing tweets and intimidation. MSNBC’s Katy Tur received terrifying threats of physical violence from Trump supporters, such as ‘I hope you get raped and killed’ (Schwartz 2018).

In these intense situations, Palazzo et al. (2012: 329) state that context can be stronger than reason, i.e. targeted journalists would experience antipathy towards the President, and ethical blindness would be much more likely.

Media response

Journalists compared Trump’s campaign to a circus act as he ‘ripped up the rules of party and campaigning’ (Usborne 2016). Yet the media’s response was to give Trump unprecedented amounts of attention as he was endlessly provocative, constantly combative and spouted strings of falsehoods. However, they were left asking: ‘Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?’ (Rutenberg 2016). The Washington Post recently pointed out that Trump’s campaign and presidency were such ‘deviations from the norm’ that it was beyond the grasp of journalists to report on them effectively (Schumann 2022). The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman claimed that, even though she had covered Trump for years, it was nonetheless a struggle to ‘handle the gush of falsehoods that dotted his sentences’ (Waldman 2023). Straight reporting would clearly not work as to report on Trump neutrally would merely lead to repeating the falsehoods. The Washington Post began enumerating Trump’s lies and eventually listed more than 30,000 of them but, in doing so, they positioned themselves as the opposition. Clark Hoyt, former public editor of The New York Times, said at the time that Trump’s ‘repeated departures from the facts’ demanded that journalists ‘say over and over again that he is not telling the truth’, but in doing so became the ‘disloyal opposition, “the enemy of the people”’ thus losing authority and trust (Hoyt 2018: 20-21; see also Rutenberg 2016). It was an invidious situation for journalists.

Trump’s flirtations with authoritarian strongmen such as North Korean Supreme leader Kim Jong-Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping of China and the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte among others, and his politicisation of the Covid crisis (labelling it a ‘new hoax’, and mocking his political opponent Joe Biden for wearing a mask) (Bolsen and Palm 2021) further exacerbated the sense of the danger of his presidency. Although there was a recognition early in Trump’s term of office of the ‘shared shame’ journalists held in ‘making Trump’ (Kristof 2016) as they did not provide context, fact checks or robust investigation of Trump’s policies, such contextual analysis and vigorous inquiry was mostly absent from reports on the president. In the end, attempts to uphold journalistic ethics disappeared.

Doing it better

Many mainstream journalists have since ‘woken up’ from their ethical blindness and realised that Trump’s tenure was a dark time in American reporting. Several of these media are now running stories confessing ‘mea culpa’ and outlining how they should have managed themselves differently. The Washington Post admits that the way it handled Trump was not effective nor even appropriate, advising that the media should critically examine the types of stories they cover and not be distracted by side shows. Incisive framing, context and analysis are most important (Schumann 2022).

Haberman agrees, adding that Trump was never properly vetted and future reporting should be more thorough (cited in Nuzzi 2022).

Meanwhile, the CEO at CNN made a ‘reformist effort to phase out overt political partisanship’ (Helmore 2022) in an attempt to steer the cable news station back to a traditional approach to journalism and less opinion-mongering. There’s an acknowledgement that not only democracy but also a free press are at stake (ibid).

In fairness to journalists, Trump’s chaotic regime made it almost impossible for them to hold him accountable, and they were completely unprepared to report on his kind of presidency. While Trump’s falsehoods were called out, journalists should not have dwelt on them nor on his social media rants as that only added fuel to the fire and perpetuated the lies (Schumann 2022). Reporting needed to be limited to what was newsworthy (see Waldow 2018). One media analyst states that news reports during the time contained far too much opinion and editorialising, and that many reporters ‘saw it as their job to be part of the “resistance”’, thus losing credibility’ (Schumann 2022). Particular attention needed to be paid to undemocratic behaviour or deviation from democratic norms. Overall, reporting should have been more disciplined (ibid).

Such insights may be obvious now but because of ethical fading and blindness, journalists were oblivious to the inadequacies in their reporting.

Countering ethical fading and blindness

There is a causal relationship between self-deception and ethical fading. Journalists can avoid a fade of ethics by consciously asking themselves if their actions are moral. Editors play a critical role in overseeing the adherence to ethics as it is widely acknowledged that organisational ethics start from the top. Leaders must exhibit the kind of behaviour they want emulated (Palazzo and Hoffrage n.d.), ensuring employees are aware of ethical dimensions. Regular meetings to reinforce ethics may help, as does rewarding ethical behaviour. Posting codes of ethics around the newsroom may assist in avoiding blind spots, as that frames rather than ignores ethics (ibid).

Ethical blindness and leadership

The most noteworthy aspect in overcoming ethical blindness is moral leadership (Sinclair 2019). The lowered tone during the Trump administration infected all of society. Haberman, who covered him exclusively for more than six years, speaks of the liberties his staff would take with the truth, aware as they were of his own dishonesty (cited in Nuzzi 2022). After a while, the truth did not seem to matter.

Rigid framing also contributes enormously to ethical blindness, and journalists during that time were either for or against Trump, unable to see beyond their own vantage point. Palazzo and Hoffrage suggest that adopting a different perspective helps to widen rigid framing and undertaking a change in methods is useful, perhaps by reporting on politics from beyond the vantage point of the White House. Including the outlook of ordinary citizens would achieve that as when routines become entrenched, actions can become mechanical, rather than thoughtful.

Moreover, small ethical transgressions can easily become bigger ones. A ‘no tolerance’ approach is necessary (ibid). It also helps to anticipate potential ethical dilemmas and have a plan in place.


A Pew Research Center report at the end of the previous century notes that journalism ethics was problematic, and journalists themselves said that the lines between reporting and commentary were becoming blurred, with particular concerns about sloppy and factually inaccurate work (Pew 1999). The report also decries the marriage of big business and journalism, noting that the pressure to make a profit affected the quality of journalism (ibid). Those sentiments have deepened in the years since but nothing has provoked panic as has an unhinged president out of his depth. Journalists feared for their lives, democracy and for a recognisable future in their own country.

The surfeit of lies, the unorthodox and corrupt administration, the anxieties and terrors combined with the situational, organisational and institutional pressures prompted journalists to develop ethical fading, experience rigid framing and eventually become ethically blind. On examining a range of articles by the mainstream press after Trump’s term of office, it is clear that there is a reckoning. Journalists have woken up and become conscious of their previous ethical shortcomings.


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Note on the contributor

Susan Stos is a broadcast and print journalist, former executive producer of a weekly current affairs programme and author of a number of articles and opinion pieces. She also lectures in journalism, specialising in ethics. She has published several academic articles and chapters including ‘Reporting poverty’ for the Handbook of global media ethics, edited by Stephen J.A. Ward, and ‘Utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics: Teaching ethical philosophy by means of a case study’, published by Neilson Journal of Business Ethics Education.

Conflict of interest

No funding was received for this article.

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