The Role of the Media in Politics
The Ethics of Posting Financial Results on Social Media

Is it Ethical to ‘Kill the Messenger’?

Closing our Eyes to the True Meaning of the Message

 “Shooting the messenger” is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of blaming the bearer of bad news.

Wells Fargo

During a recent Congressional investigation, we learned that six former Wells Fargo workers were retaliated against for calling the bank’s ethics hot line about opening fake accounts. One such employee, Bill Bado, said he was fired eight days after sending an email in 2013 to HR about unauthorized accounts. Wells Fargo’s actions to suppress Bado’s claims violates the whistleblower protections under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Dodd-Frank.

Bado added during his testimony that he had been asked on several occasions to do things he knew were unethical. For example, his branch manager asked him to send out a debit card, “pin it,” and enroll customers in online banking – all without customers request or knowledge.

Hillary Clinton

The kill the messenger syndrome is alive and well this campaign season. Hillary Clinton blames WikiLeaks, Russia, and Vladimir Putin himself for hacking DNC files and, most recently, the emails of John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign. Blaming the Russians may be the right thing to do but we shouldn’t lose sight that the information disclosed is important to an informed electorate.

It appears Clinton used a “pay for play” approach to gain access to her while she was Secretary of State. Monies given to the Clinton Foundation gained access. Clinton hammers WikiLeaks for its actions and states consequences must be imposed. In her mind, WikiLeaks should be exposed under a kill the messenger reaction to the disclosures.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump has been dealing with allegations of improper sexual comments and actions from ten women and counting. This reminds me of the Bill Cosby case. These women feared going public because of Trump’s power and influence. So, what does he do? Trump blames the women for disclosing actions he denies. It’s hard to believe so many women are lying. Trump would like to shoot these ten messengers. Yet, their actions have alerted the country to a potentially fatal flaw in his candidacy.

Edward Snowden

Then there is the infamous case of Edward Snowden. In June 2013, reporters at The Washington Post and the Guardian ran a series of stories about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs. Leaked top-secret documents showed that the National Security Agency was spying on American citizens.

At first, Snowden was treated like a pariah and the kill the messenger syndrome was in full force, including labeling Snowden as a traitor. With the passage of time many have changed their mind and lauded Snowden as it has become clear that privacy is a critical feature of an open society.

Snowden’s actions have led to a skyrocketing use of Web encryption and making our sensitive traffic more secure than ever before. Also, people are adopting better security habits: stronger passwords; better privacy settings, and more. A lot of good things have come from Snowden’s documents. Still, he should be held accountable for his actions.

Is Whistle-blowing a Moral Act?

Whistleblowers should be willing to pay the price for their disclosures if any laws have been broken. This raises the question: Is whistle-blowing a moral act? A noted expert in business ethics, Richard De George, has said that criteria establish the foundation for moral behavior to occur when contemplating whistle-blowing. He rejects the position that external whistle-blowing is always morally justifiable, and, he also rejects the position that external whistle-blowing is never morally justifiable.

De George’s position is that the whistleblower should have a moral motivation to engage in the act (i.e., to expose unnecessary harm, and illegal or immoral actions). In other words, the whistleblower has chosen to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for notoriety or a financial reward. I believe in all the cases cited in this piece the whistleblowers acted morally.

The kill the messenger syndrome can lead an organization to develop a defensive posture when it comes to dealing with whistleblowers. The ethical standing of the organization morphs into what I call a counter-ethics culture. It harms the organization and disguises information that the public has a right to know.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 25, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: