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Communication Ethics: A Vital Resource in an Ever-Changing World (October 2016): Rhetorical Approaches, the Communication Process, and the Public

By Robert L. Ballard, Melba Vélez Ortiz, and Leeanne M. Bell McManus

Rhetorical Approaches, the Communication Process, and the Public

Research into influences on the communication process has shifted away from philosophical or historical approaches to employ rhetorical or social scientific approaches. This kind of research focuses on an aspect of the communication process (sender, receiver, message, etc.) to highlight that aspect’s role in making ethical communicative choices.

Rhetorical and public communication approaches focus on how messages are delivered, given a situation, an audience, and a speaker. This involves a consideration of what kinds of persuasive means are used (logic, emotion, and credibility), how an audience is treated, what is emphasized in a text, how people are portrayed, who is included or excluded, the hidden values and attitudes of the speaker, and much more.

In Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions, Richard Parker examines free speech decisions of the Supreme Court from a communication standpoint, thus considering the issues of ethics, language, and rhetoric that are wrapped up in the United States’ most important constitutional amendment. Also drawing on rhetorical approaches is Shawn J. Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles’s Public Address and Moral Judgment: Critical Studies in Ethical Tensions. This edited volume looks at the moral implications of public address ranging from World War II propaganda to civil rights to presidential speeches, including issues of language, ethical tensions, metaphor, moral codes, and moral judgments. In a more critical approach, Paul Turpin’s The Moral Rhetoric of Political Economy: Justice and Modern Economic Thought examines how the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas have influenced notions of ethics, justice, and how we relate to one another in and through local and broad communities. S. Alyssa Groom and Janie Harden Fritz also look at the public sphere and communication ethics, but rather than focus on organizational and firm responses from a public relations perspective, their Communication Ethics and Crisis: Negotiating Differences in Public and Private Spheres reveals how crises intrapersonally, interpersonally, in the family, and in the political realm are opportunities to articulate the good.

Other communication ethics scholars take an empirical approach. The goal is to develop theoretically predictive models that can aid in ethical decision making. This is revealed by Rebecca Lind, David Rarick, and Tammy Swenson-Lepper. Both Tammy Swenson-Lepper’s “Ethical Sensitivity, Cognitive Mapping, and Organizational Communication: A Different Approach to Studying Ethics in Organizations” and Rebecca Lind, David Rarick, and Swenson-Lepper’s “Identifying Patterns of Ethical Sensitivity in TV News Viewers: An Assessment of Some Critical Viewing Skills” develop an ethical sensitivity scale that measures the ability of individuals to recognize the presence of ethical issues in communication. The scale reveals factors that impact how sensitive people are to messages and situations that might cause harm. Their research has found that higher levels of education enhance levels of sensitivity. Thus, the researchers demonstrate the merit of ethics courses and training.

The need for rhetorical and empirical approaches cannot be understated. While philosophical and normative approaches work at an abstract level to develop coherent ethical perspectives from which to evaluate ethical decisions, the veracity and applicability of those theories need to be tested. Social science and rhetorical approaches can provide empirical evidence of this by examining more fully elements of the communication process along with the outcomes of approaches of communication on society.