By Marco Clemente,
and Tim Hannigan
Scandals are violent shocks to social systems in which public figures may fall from grace. Societies have long been captivated by scandals embroiling powerful people.
Politicians also populate this list, including failed Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux, former U.S. senator Larry Craig and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, now member of the European Parliament despite an endless list of scandals.
Yet not all scandalous acts result in a scandal or produce the same consequences. How can we explain the fact that some prominent figures seem able to resist the consequences of their behaviour and to be seemingly immune from scandals?
The traditional view on scandals in social science, the “objectivist” perspective, holds that there is a direct, linear relationship between the severity of behaviour in question and its social consequences. To casual observers as well, scandals are usually perceived as naturally resulting from severe transgressions: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
In contrast, a more recent “constructivist” perspective sees scandals as social-cultural events driven in large part by media reporting. Here, misconduct is neither necessary nor sufficient for a scandal to occur: some scandals result from rumours, while much bad behaviour never gets activated into scandal.
It’s not the act itself, therefore, but rather the media that distinguishes transgressions that remain private from those that make a stir.
As the fourth estate, the media publicize salient behaviour, activating public opinion and disapproval. Media attention problematizes the behaviour in question, pressuring other institutions to react. Media coverage also ensures that the reputations of scandal protagonists are assailed, leading to potential stigmatization. No media, no scandal.
Why then do some seem immune from scandal?
We take a constructivist perspective on what drives media reporting and the consequences of this attention. We outline five factors that influence how scandals get activated, which in turn explains why some figures fall from grace while others remain untouched.
First, the media are more likely to create a scandal when transgressions disrupt established norms. When public figures who hold themselves up as paragons of morality are revealed to violate the social order they purport to uphold, a scandal is sure to follow.
In 2007, conservative U.S. senator Craig was arrested for lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. He subsequently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and resigned. It was not his behaviour per se, but the inconsistencies with social rules he openly supported that the media problematized.
Even figures whose appeal lies in their ability to flout norms – like Berlusconi – will find themselves enmeshed in scandal when they broach norms that affect their supporters personally and negatively.
Second, media coverage of wrongdoing only activates a scandal when it speaks to powerful and interested social groups. Audiences are not homogeneous: what is egregiously offensive to some is unremarkable to others. Those who operate at the intersection of multiple, diverse interest groups may seem immune from scandal because only some constituencies find a particular behaviour objectionable. A scandal is only likely to emerge if the most powerful audiences are willing to act upon the transgression.
Consider a political figure, like presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was accused by conservative politicians and media outlets of securing seats on the boards of international firms for his son Hunter. However, the intelligence community, Democratic party, mainstream media and especially voters did not agree, and the issue fizzled.
Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria’s onetime vice-chancellor and head of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), didn’t receive similar support in May 2019 when a video was released of him proposing to offer government contracts to the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch. In the ensuing corruption scandal, he was forced to resign, new elections were held and the support for the far-right FPÖ collapsed.
Third, the relative status and credibility of a media outlet also impact attempts to publicize scandalous behaviour. The media not only publicize transgressions but also shape scandal narratives. Attempts to delegitimize the media (for example, by calling them “fake news”) may help transgressors reduce the impact of their wrongdoing. Both Donald Trump and Berlusconi regularly attack the media (an irony in Berlusconi’s case, given his media-driven fortune).
Not all outlets enjoy equal reach or credibility: scandals typically emerge from the most prestigious outlets. While public shaming is common on social media, it typically damages individual reputations without rising to the level of scandal unless picked up by more prestigious outlets.
This may be changing given shifting news consumption patterns. On social media it’s easier to target different groups with specific information, as proved by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Even when a scandal erupts, the balkanization of the media implies that different groups may receive contrasting framings, reducing the impact of the scandal on the transgressor.
Fourth, whether the media are attentive to a transgressor, and whether that transgression leads to scandal, is in part a function of who the transgressors are. Some public figures are protected from scandals by the halo effect that emanates from previously held public opinion – a strong reputation, high status or celebrity can immunize transgressors from what would normally be negative outcomes that might stem from discreditable behaviour.
When audiences are emotionally attached to, preoccupied with, or revere a public figure – as pop music fans were of Michael Jackson during his lifetime, for example – positive feelings prevent them from rationally evaluating evidence. By choosing to overlook questionable actions, they’re able to avoid engaging in the difficult sense-making process that would force them to challenge their prior feelings.
Finally, both the media and the public are subject to scandal fatigue when too many scandals appear one after another.
Cultural sociologist Mark Jacobs has theorized about a “system of scandals,” whereby the over-reporting of scandal by the media can potentially normalize it. As Jacobs writes, “scandals germinate in fields of secrecy and corruption,” but too many scandals can exhaust audiences and their moral appetite for punishing potential wrongdoers. The current U.S. president comes notably to mind.
The fact remains that some public figures are able to resist creating a scandal better than others. Political figures have status, authority and legitimacy that can protect them, but also visibility that can pull them down.
Corporate leaders answer to a different set of stakeholders but the activation and fallout from corporate scandals are similar to those in politics, as shown by the differing treatment of business leaders in the LIBOR scandal.
The constructivist perspective provides some explanation by exploring how the interaction of the media with multiple audiences can construct scandals. Over time, conditions may change: audiences may withdraw their support; societal norms evolve under the influence of previous scandals; the credibility, reputation, and status of public figures and organizations change.
The process of scandal construction is constantly in flux, and that too helps explains why some individuals are immune from scandals, until they are not.
Marco Clemente is associate professor of corporate social responsiblity at the IÉSEG School of Management. Jo-Ellen Pozner is assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. Tim Hannigan is assistant professor of organization theory and entrepreneurship at the University of Alberta.