Towards a Sense of Ethics for Technical Communication
In recent years, technical communicators have examined ethics, or the moral implications of their work, in increasing detail. Since the 1970s, when ethics first became a major topic of consideration in technical communication journals (Dombrowski 4), more articles have appeared on the subject each year. Many of these articles begin with the assumption that technical communicators do not have much power to make ethical decisions about their work. Considering corporate technical communicators, Cezar M. Ornatowski states that "employee are paid to render service to employers and to further their goals...Institutional readers 'need' a document that does a certain job, and they won't accept one that does not do it to their satisfaction, no matter how lofty the social sentiments of the writer" (100). Jacelin Witta Colosky echoes this opinion, stating that "most technical communicators are the liaison between many forces but rarely have the power for final decisions" (1). These statements paint a pessimistic picture of the technical communicator's ethical position.
With writers in the discipline expressing this pessimistic point of view, it is little wonder that practicing technical communicators tend not look to the discipline for ethical guidance. In interviews with forty-eight technical communicators, Sam Dragga found that most cite their personal intuition, feelings, or conscience in making ethical decisions. As Dragga observes,
the people I interviewed adopt no single or consistent process for making their ethical decisions. All processes are fluid and dynamic, but ordinarily involve people looking within themselves or looking to other people on the job for moral insight...None [of the subjects] refer to a professional code of conduct or solicit advice from a professional association ("A Question of Ethics" 168).
These communicators seem to feel that, ethically, they are on their own.
I find this lack of a sense of ethics as a field troubling. A field-specific understanding of ethics is part of that field's identity. One of the first things that aspiring lawyers and doctors must do, for example, is to take the oath of their profession that commits them to uphold certain ethical standards. These ethical standards are part of what identifies and in some sense legitimizes the professions of law and medicine. Dragga explicitly notes this connection between a field's standards and its identity, stating that "the impact [of standards of conduct] on the identity of a profession could be substantial" ("A Question of Ethics" 178). We are not yet in a place where we can define "ethical" technical communication, and I believe getting to that place should be our goal.
Ultimately, the audience that a technical communicator addresses is the judge of whether his/her work is ethical. To build a sense of ethics, I believe that we need to start with a basic understanding of the relationships that technical communicators build with that audience in their work and identify ways in which those relationships might have ethical implication. We can then develop some "best practice" examples to help guide our ethical decision-making as we forge those relationships. These "best practices" can help set precedents for what the field considers ethical.
Once we have a sense of these precedents, we can more easily talk about how workplace politics and pressures affect the ethicality of our work. We need to know what we as a field consider ethical before we can discuss how our position in the workplace affects those principles. Establishing ethical precedents might even help to improve a technical communicator's chance of being able to make ethical decisions in the workplace. If adhering to ethical standards is indeed a sign of a field's professional status, then the association of technical communication with ethical precedents might give individual technical communicators more leverage in objecting to something that the field considers unethical. If technical communication is associated with ethical guidelines, it could gain more respect than Ornatowski's and Colosky's statements suggest it currently has.
In this paper, I will offer some ideas about how such guidelines or "best practices" can be developed. I will begin by making a case for "best practices," using Aristotle's concept of ethos to suggest that technical communicators need to consider the ethos that they present in their work not only to communicate ethically but to increase their own status in the workplace. I will argue that ethical guidelines are one way of developing an ethical and professional ethos. I will then look specifically at a way of developing those guidelines. Drawing on the taxonomy of reader roles that Mary B. Coney discusses in her article "Technical Readers and Their Rhetorical Roles," I will offer a parallel taxonomy of roles that writers in technical communication are commonly called on to play and discuss the potential for ethical decision-making in those roles. These roles suggest situations for which ethical precedents need to be developed. I will conclude by offering my thoughts on how we can continue to work towards an ethical sense of technical communication.
Ethos and the Technical Communicator
Although Aristotle's writing, which addresses both rhetoric and ethics, can help point us towards ways of thinking about ethical communication, we need to consider carefully how we apply it to our current communication situations. Aristotle assumes an easy relationship between the ethicality of a communicator's work and the ethos or character that s/he presents in that work. Both are judged by an audience with fairly unified values and ideas of what determined an appropriate and ethical character. Today we cannot assume that one group's judgment represents a universally agreed-upon ethical perspective. The fragmentation of communities and standards is particularly necessary for technical communicators to acknowledge, since they frequently communicate not only within an organization but also with a broader audience, the public. To meet the needs of these diverse audiences and communicate ethically with them, technical communicators cannot merely convey a corporate ethic and ethos. We need to develop our own voice and sense of ethics.
Ethos, or character, is the means by which a communicator establishes rapport with his/her audience, which in turn establishes the communicator's credibility (Aristotle I 1). This credibility relies not only on the communicator's specific character but also on the public character s/he represents. Ethos is the "public reputation one acquire[s] by acting in a particular societal role" (Campbell 135). It thus combines our idea of character and position. For example, a businesswoman's specific way of conducting corporate meetings and of running her company, her way of acting as a businesswoman, will help to determine the ethos that she conveys.
The success of a communicator's ethos is ultimately determined by the audience s/he addresses. As Eve Walsh Stoddard notes, "different audiences with different purposes will regard various types of intelligence and character negatively or positively" (232). While a person conveying the ethos of an oil magnate may successfully communicate with a group of other businesspeople, that ethos would not successfully establish the speaker's credibility among a group of environmentalists. "Although we can define a writer's ethos independently, it cannot be used effectively without consideration of specific audience attitudes and interests" (Stoddard 232). The audience is the final judge over whether an ethos is effective.
The audience also judges whether that ethos is ethical. Like ethos, to Aristotle ethics depends on the communicator's audience. "Aristotle's view of the good [or ethical] is sociological: the community defines what the good is, and the individual is good when he or she performs well the functions required by society -- that is, when the person is a good citizen" (Sullivan 378). Within a community, there is therefore an easy relationship between the ethos that a communicator adopts and the ethicality of his/her communication. The communicator's ethos demonstrates that s/he is fulfilling his/her societal role, and thus that s/he is acting ethically.
Aristotle was addressing one fairly unified community, Athens. The virtues that he lists in the Rhetoric as leading to the formation of a successful ethos are those that were valued by Athenian society (Aristotle I 9, Halloran 60). In today's world, we are faced with a fragmentation of communities, each potentially with its own conception of what is ethical and the ethos required to demonstrate that ethicality. We can no longer assume that, just because a person succeeds in establishing credibility with a particular audience, that there is broad agreement that s/he is acting ethically.
Stephen B. Katz powerfully demonstrates this point in his analysis of the rhetoric of Nazi Germany. Katz argues that Adolf Hilter created a system based on the "ethics of expediency," in which technical efficiency served as an end it itself (257). A technical communicator who took on the role to which s/he was assigned in this system, who communicated with the properly technological and efficient ethos, was acting ethically in Aristotle's sense of serving his/her function in that particular society (Katz 263). As Katz states, "Hitler's was an "ethical" program in the broadest sense of that term" (263). However, by any other standards, the communicator who laid out ways in which Jews could be more efficiently exterminated was not acting ethically at all.
Technical communicators need to be particularly aware that the judging audience is the ultimate determiner of the ethicality of his/her work. Although technical communicators often speak for an organization, their audience is frequently comprised of people outside of the organization. Because technical communication as a discipline has historically been associated with organizations and industry (Zappen 37), the ethos that a communicator adopts and the ethical standards that s/he upholds are often decided by company policy. John Bryan states that "technical writers...have traditionally relied on the ethical orientation of the organizational families that adopt us" (73). The difficulty with this association is that it leads too easily to a relativistic sense of a communicator's ethical responsibility. While technical communicators are communicating within an organization, they are also communicating to a broader audience of people who will use the work that they produce. The ethical standards that an organization espouses may be correct from the point of view of the organization, but at times the communicator may doubt whether they are ethical for a broader audience.
For example, in 1994 the computer company Intel decided to replace defective Pentium computer chips only for those customers who could demonstrate that their work would be affected by the defect. This decision considered the organization's point of view (the cost of replacing the chip for all customers) but did not consider the customer's viewpoint (their right to know about a defective product) (Markel 292). (Intel eventually instituted a no-questions-asked replacement policy). A communicator asked to convey the company's initial decision might doubt its ethicality in the eyes of Intel's customers, even though the company considered it appropriate.
Not only does adhering to a corporate ethos and corporate ethic potentially lead to ethical problems for a technical communicator, but this adherence helps to define, and delimit, his/her own ethos within the organization. When communicators speak or write, they both sustain and create an ethos (Halloran 61). By parroting company policy and standards, technical communicators reinforce an ethos of subservience, as practitioners who apply a prescribed set of skills to their work rather than as professionals who consider the implications of that work as they produce it.
I believe that technical communicators therefore need to have an alternative, field-specific source of ethical guidelines. While technical communicators may still speak in their organization's voice, these guidelines can give them a chance to help shape both a more ethical organizational ethos and their own ethos within the organization. As a way of suggesting a possible way of developing these guidelines, I will examine written technical communication in particular, looking at ways in which technical communicators frequently relate to their readers within their work. While Mary Coney has developed a taxonomy of reader roles, I believe that we need to develop a counterpart taxonomy of writer roles, both to consider the ethical implications of what technical communicators do and to find areas where technical communicators might benefit from some ethical guidance.
A Taxonomy of Writer Roles
Coney's taxonomy of five reader roles suggests five parallel roles for writers: writer as sender of information, writer as accommodator, writer as encoder, writer as professional colleague, and writer as opportunity for reader interpretation. These roles present a continuum of the balance of power between writer and reader; the writer who sends information has the most power over the meaning the reader receives from his/her message, while the writer who is merely the opportunity for reader interpretation has the least. Because of space limitations in this paper, I will focus on the middle three roles. I have selected the middle roles in part because the first and last roles have been widely discussed. Moreover, the first and last roles are extremes, either giving the preponderance of power in the communication situation to the writer or reader. Ethical discussions tend to focus on extremes, but I believe that the truly tricky ethical situations often arise in the gray area in between.
In my discussion of each role that follows, I will examine the power balance that it sets up between writer and reader and examine the potential ethical issues that this relationship raises. I will then suggest ways in which the role provides opening for discussion of what a technical communicator's ethical responsibility should be.
Writer as Accommodator
In this role, the writer has information that the reader needs or wants to extract from the writer's work quickly and easily. The writer assumes that the reader is "goal-driven" and "uninterested in and perhaps unwilling to evaluation the intellectual (or social) bases of the information in the text" (Coney 59). Readers are more interested in what the text can do for them than in the text itself, and they will "satisfice," reading only enough to gain the knowledge they feel they need to accomplish their goals (Reddish 3).
The writer's job is therefore to accommodate both the information he/she presents and his/her own writing style to the reader. David N. Dobrin sees the adaptation of information as a defining feature of technical writing, stating that "technical writing is writing that accommodates technology to the user" (242). Writers also accommodate their writing itself. Coney suggests that, in this conception of the writer's role, "verbal content is dispensed sparingly by writers...Sentences are short and simple; verbs are heavily imperative; the tone informal" (59). This style presumably allows readers to read quickly and to find the information for which they are looking without a great deal of effort.
This conception of the writer's role provides him/her with a great deal of power. The writer understands a complex system or set of ideas that the reader does not, and the writer "knows" what the reader wants or needs to understand out of that system or set of ideas. The writer filters the information that s/he presents based on his/her assumptions about what the reader wants or needs to know. "Technical writing gives what is useful, not what is know. The first question a technical writer asks is 'Who is the reader?' not 'What is the world?' and the answer to the first determines the answer to the second" (Dobrin 247). A writer of computer software documentation, for example, may decided that readers will only access a certain feature in the program in the fastest possible way and may opt not to emphasize or even discuss the five alternative ways of accessing that feature.
Although empirical studies can be a guide, the writer's understanding of and assumptions about the reader are what determines the form and content of his/her work. In an aptly titled article, "Understanding Readers," Janice C. Reddish presents an example of how a writer's conception of readers' needs can influence his/her work. Reddish presents assumptions, derived from her interpretation of empirical research, about "how readers work with documents" (1), then discusses ways that writers can design documents to reflect those assumptions. Her premise is that writers need to understand what readers want in order to accommodate their work appropriately.
There are times when this type of filtering and accommodating is entirely legitimate, particularly when the writer's assessment of readers' needs map closely to readers' actual needs. In the workplace, for example, readers may genuinely want to extract information quickly from a document. "In the workplace, people most often 'read to do' rather than 'read to learn'...The working person's primary job is not usually to read documents. It is to do something" (Reddish 4-5). An accountant may want to use a new accounting software package to do her work more efficiently, and it is appropriate that the accompanying documentation will help her to achieve that goal. Even when people want to learn about an issue, it can be appropriate for the writer to accommodate information. During periods of rapid technological change, people cannot possibly read all of the information that is available. During the early days of the Internet in the 1990s, for example, readers might have appreciated writers who could filter information, deciding what would best help their audience to understand what was happening.
The writer's power to filter information can lead to potential ethical problems in other situations, however. The writer's assessment of readers' needs can lead him/her to eliminate information that readers in fact should know. This situation can arise when technical communication and marketing intersect. In this case, the writer may feel pressure to limit what the reader "needs" to know in order to entice him/her to buy what the writer's organization is selling.
As John Bryan notes, technical communicators are increasingly called upon to play marketing roles (73) and to bring a marketing perspective to their technical work (77). In technology-based industries, such as pharmaceuticals, the boundary between marketing and technical communication may be blurred. A brochure that explains the technical details of a new drug, for example, may be both a piece of technical writing and a marketing tool for the company.
Marketing requires that the writer think of the reader as a "user," in the sense that the reader is a potential user of the product or service being promoted. The writer decides what information to present to the reader to facilitate his/her use, or purchase, of that product or service. The writer may therefore feel pressure to present the information in a positive way. This pressure can lead the writer to limit the information that the reader "needs," in the process eliminating or hiding important details about the product or service.
In the area of pharmaceuticals, people who are deciding whether to take a new drug need information about the side effects and potential health risks that the drug poses. The federal government, recognizing that companies might be inclined to downplay or eliminate this information in their advertising, requires it to be included. While a technical communicator producing an advertising brochure must include that information, s/he may feel pressure to hide it in small print, while accentuating information about the drug's benefits. Moreover, there is other information that a reader might need to know in order to make an informed decision, such as whether the drug is better than a slightly different version that s/he is already taking. The technical communicator might feel that, although this information may be necessary for the actual reader, it also might dissuade him/her from taking the drug. The writer's role as accommodator of information to potential users might thus be in conflict with his/her sense of what readers actually need to know. The writer faces the question of how much information s/he is ethically obligated to provide.
This role for the technical communicator thus leads to ethical questions, and the field needs to explore possible ways of addressing them. As a discipline, we need to explore when this role is and is not an ethical one for the technical communicator to play and how technical communicators can address potential ethical problems that might arise as part of the role. What are the ethical implications, for example, of assuming that readers do not 'need' certain information, or of hiding information that readers 'need' less in small print? In a survey of five hundred technical communicators about ethical practices in document design, Sam Dragga found that there is significant disagreement about using small print in this manner. Approximately thirty-three percent of survey respondents said this practice was completely or mostly ethical, while approximately forty-five percent said it was mostly or completely unethical ("Is This Ethical?" 260). As a field, we need to develop a sense of how to make decisions about the ethicality of this type of practice, which the writer's role as accommodator can promote.
Writer as Encoder
Another way of conceiving of the technical communicator's role is as an encoder. Like the conception of the writer as accommodator, this model assumes that the writer has information to provide to the reader. In this case, however, the reader is not merely a "user" of information but a member of the writer's community. The two share a common language or code, and the writer's job is to use this code to transmit a message to the reader.
Although the reader is more of an equal to the writer than in the previous model, the writer still retains the majority of the power in this situation. The writer still has an already-determined message that s/he wants to convey to the reader. As Coney points out, Roman Jakobson's communication theory develops this type of relationship (Coney 60). Jakobson posits an Addresser (the encoder) and an Addressee (the decoder) who are equal in that they both understand the code and context of a situation and have some means of contact (353). Both encoder and decoder are important participants in the communication; one aspect of their relationship, the phatic function of language, exists solely to maintain the connection between the encoder and decoder (Jakobson 353, Coney 60). However, Jakobson's examples of phatic communication point to the continued dominance of the encoder. While phatic phrases, such as "it is well understood" (Coney 60), check that the encoder's message is getting though and confirm that writer and reader are on common ground, they do not invite the reader's considered response. They confirm what the reader presumably already knows as a prelude to conveying the writer's message, rather than inviting the reader's active participation in the communication process.
In addition to conveying the writer's message, the encoded communication confirms that writer and reader are both members of the same community (Coney 60). This type of writing thus depends on shorthand, jargon, and acronyms that outsiders would probably not know (Coney 60). A health care policy analyst who writes about the "SCHIP dip," for example, is encoding a message about a specific feature in a children's health care program that only other members of his/her community will be able to understand.
The assumption that writer and reader share a community can facilitate communication; the writer can draw on a shared knowledge base, taking for granted an understanding of common terms. When technical communicators write for members of a specific community, writing in "code" can be an asset. For example, a technical communicator who writes a report about the safety of a nuclear power plant that will be read by executives at the power plant can use language and acronyms that are specific to the community of the nuclear power plant.
While encoded communication works well within a community, it also excludes people who are outside of that group. In his discussion of the formation of and change within scientific communities, Thomas Kuhn recognizes this exclusion. As scientific disciplines solidify, encoded and exclusive communication becomes more common.
The creative scientist can begin his research where [the textbook] leaves off and thus concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group. And as he does this, his research communiqués will begin to change...No longer will his researches usually be embodied in books addressed...to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead they will usually appear in brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues (20).
While Kuhn believes that this change is part of the development of science, he also characterizes the change in research communication as "obvious to all and oppressive to many" (20). He thus suggests that the writer's newfound assumptions and authority prevent those outside the community from accessing information.
While technical communicators generally know their primary audience well enough to avoid excluding them, in some cases technical documents have more than one interested audience. The document about the safety of a nuclear power plant may be meant for consumption only by people familiar with the inner workings of nuclear power plants, but people who live near the power plant also have an interest in understanding it. James P. Zappen points out that documents with potential dual audiences, such as policy statements, position papers, and debates on technical issues, are often unknown to the public (30-31); however, even if these documents were readily available, the public might not be able to read them without a lexicon of terms. As we move towards an ethical understanding of our discipline, we need to consider whether our encoded communications may be excluding people with a vested interest in their content and how we can address that exclusion.
Writer as Colleague
In the writer roles I have discussed so far, the writer has some message that s/he desires to communicate to the reader. That message is determined before the writer begins to compose; the writer is merely deciding how to adapt or encode the message to present it to his/her audience. In the writer's role as colleague, this pattern changes. In this role, the writer's work serves to create and maintain a community more than to transmit information, and this purpose is accomplished through the writing itself.
As in the writer's role as encoder, in the writer's role as colleague the writer and reader belong to the same community. In this role, unlike that of encoder, however, the writer and reader are considered equals. Writer and reader are distinct but identify with each other to the extent that their interests are joined; as Kenneth Burke states, they are "consubstantial" with each other (20-21). Not only are writer and reader peers, however, but they are also engaged in a mutual quest for knowledge. The writer's rhetoric thus becomes, in Wayne Booth's language, a "rhetoric of assent" in which rhetoric is "the whole art of discovering and sharing warrantable assertions" (11). This rhetoric serves as the basis for discovering and exploring communal knowledge and values.
In this view, the process of writing, and the inquiry it promotes, are more important than the specific conclusions that the writer draws within his/her work (Booth 137). The reader is no longer the passive recipient of information but "a referee who represents the standards of the disciplinary community. As such, he is more concerned with the terms of the argument, its scope and methodologies than with the application (or even accuracy) of the specific findings" (Coney 60). The writer thus becomes a player in the community whose writing is a component of creating and shaping that community rather than a mere conveyer of information.
Dorothy Winsor's study of engineering writing demonstrates how this conception of the writer works in practice. From her interviews with the writer of an engineering report, she concludes that reports such as this one are not only practical documents but rituals that show "the writers' respect for fact-based actions and thus show that they belong to the community of engineers" (65). These reports both demonstrate the writer's place in the community and serve to create that community by "interpret[ing] these engineers' activities to match engineering ideals" (Winsor 66). These writers are thus "writing themselves as engineers" (Winsor 66), putting forth their ideals about their profession and simultaneously shaping those ideals. Rather than simply providing new information to the reader, these reports help to create the community to which writer and reader both belong.
It seems that ethical communication should be fairly likely in this model; it is "as much a moral vision as a communication theory" (Coney 61). The writer has an incentive to disclose pertinent information, since it is through the process of presenting information to the reader that its meaning for the community is shaped. As Coney states, in this type of writing "the tone is one of respect, candor, honesty. Mistakes are admitted, doubts are aired, advice is welcomed" (61). The writer is still interpreting information; the engineer that Winsor studied was conscious that he was "telling a story" and trying to present both himself and his profession well (67). However, that story is being told not to 'outsiders' but to the very community that the writer is trying to create and sustain. The writer may emphasize or deemphasize certain facets of the community, but s/he is more likely to give an honest assessment when s/he is helping to develop an idea of the community for itself than if s/he were defending the community to others.
Even this type of communication can become unethical, however. The writer's assumed audience of fellow community members gives him/her a certain amount of freedom to air doubts and offer his/her ideas of the community's identity. Were the writer to communicate those same doubts and ideas outside the community, however, s/he could be acting unethically. A medical writer may legitimately raise doubts about a popular cancer treatment within the medical community, since those doubts may lead to further examination of the treatment and increased evidence of its success or failure. If the medical writer were to air those doubts to the public without a great deal of proof, however, s/he could cause panic and discredit a treatment than in fact might be effective. When communicating with the public, communities and organizations generally value a unified voice rather than an individual writer's contribution to the definition of that community.
However, there are ways in which this conception of the writer can lead towards an ethical unified voice. As James E. Porter notes, in corporations documents are often created "through social interaction and negotiation of conflicting perspectives by numerous writers and editors" (128). It is during these interactions that writers take on the role of colleagues, mutually engaged in the process of creating the sense of their organization that will come through in the final document. By exploring their doubts and ideas together, this group of writers has a better chance of taking into account the various ethical issues that could arise in their work. Although they may not be relating as colleagues to their eventual readers, their ability to take on this role among themselves can lead to more ethical work. As we begin examining situations in which we as technical communicators might need to make ethical decisions, this process of mutual inquiry can help up to consider ways to make ethical decision-making more likely.
In this paper, I have suggested why understanding our field as ethically engaged is important both for our credibility with the audiences with which we communicate and for our own professional identity and legitimacy. I have also suggested one strategy for beginning to come to that understanding, by examining the specific ways in which technical communicators as writers often relate to their readers and what these roles suggests about the questions that the discipline needs to be asking. This strategy is obviously a basic starting place, and I invite others to develop and expand on it.
I have mentioned several times that the audience who reads our work is the ultimate judge of whether it is effective and ethical. In order to reach a place where we can communicate ethically with the audience of our work, however, we need to have an understanding among ourselves of what ethical technical communication is and how we can achieve it. Developing guidelines or 'best practices' involves communicating within our own discipline; only when we succeed at this type of communication can be hope to present an ethical ethos in our workplace communication.
Essentially, I am suggesting that we need to begin the process of developing an ethical sense of the field by writing to each other, as colleagues, with that goal specifically as our focus. The increased attention that ethics has gained in the literature is promising, but I believe we need to focus our consideration of ethics more specifically on how we can define what we consider ethical technical communication to be. The conception of our role as colleagues emphasizes that we are mutually engaged in exploring the ideals and values of our community through writing – in other words, we are helping to create and shape our field's ethos. Considering ourselves as colleagues engaged in a process of exploration can help us to gain a better understanding of what our discussions can accomplish. Once we have reached an understanding through these discussions of the ethical values that our field promotes, we can then work on conveying, and being able to convey, those values and its accompanying ethos to our broader audience, the audience that encounters our work.
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 The five reader roles that Coney discusses are reader as receiver of information, reader as user, reader as decoder, reader as professional colleague, and reader as maker of meaning (59-61).
 Carolyn R. Miller's article "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" provides a cogent critique and analysis of the ethical implication of the writer's role as sender. Stanley Fish, meanwhile, examines the implications of reader- or community-driven meaning in his chapter on "Change" from Doing What Comes Naturally, as well as in "Is There A Text In This Class?".