While communication ethics finds its origins in ancient history, its professionalization is relatively new, originating in a 1983 speech by Kenneth Anderson, president of what was then called the Speech Communication Association (now the National Communication Association). Titled “A Code of Ethics for Speech Communication,” Anderson’s talk highlighted the importance of ethics to the study of communication. In 1984, the Communication Ethics Commission (now called the Communication Ethics Division) was formed with the mission to “promote research and teaching relating to ethical issues and standards in all aspects of human communication and to encourage educational programs that examine communication ethics.” In petitioning to create the division, prominent communication ethics scholar James Jaska noted that “ethics is central to [the communication] field and has been an indispensable part of our tradition since our beginnings.”
In 1990, under Jaska and Michael Pritchard’s leadership, the division began hosting summer conferences. They were hosted until 2004 by Western Michigan University in Gull Lake, Michigan, and then moved to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh where conferences continue to this day. The gatherings have led to many books and articles. James Jaska and Michael Pritchard’s Communication Ethics: Methods of Analysis, which concerns communication in organizational risk areas, emerged from one of these gatherings. Lea Stewart edited a series of articles called “Communication and Ethics: Parts I and II” in the Electronic Journal of Communication, continuing to stress the importance of ethics within the discipline of communication.
Because scholarship flourished in communication ethics, a yearlong process of examination, comment, and discussion among members of NCA and the Communication Ethics Division led, in 1999, to the adoption of the Credo for Ethical Communication. The Credo marks a significant moment in the history of communication ethics, as it officially recognizes the centrality of ethics to all forms of communication. It states:
Ethical communication is fundamental to responsible thinking, decision-making, and the development of relationships and communities within and across contexts, cultures, and media. Moreover, ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others.
Recognition of the importance of ethics came in the form of the prestigious NCA Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture. Kenneth Andersen’s 2003 lecture was called “Recovering the Civic Culture: The Imperative of Ethical Communication.” In 2008, Michael Hyde gave the Distinguished Lecture, which was called “Perfection, Postmodern Culture, and the Biotechnology Debate.”
Ethics is highly relevant to the discipline of communication. This is traced excellently in Pat Gehrke’s The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century. Gehrke reveals not only how important ethics is, but also the way communication has made itself distinct from psychology and its role in shaping our rhetorical and public lives.