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Karyn N. Lewis
Professor S. Warycka
Written Argument 0502-443-01
Fall 20081

Ethics in Professional Technical Communication:


They do Apply

Because the role of the modern technical writer is expanding rapidly and will continue to do so,
the ethical scope of the technical writer's responsibility is comparably expanded too (Dombrowski). The
technical writer is now seen as an information developer in the formative stages of creating technical
information, as a communicator in disseminating information, as an interpreter in explaining information,
and as a usability expert in guiding the application of information. As a result, ethics have become
involved in technical writing in many ways: traditional and new, obvious and not so obvious. Before the
computerization of verbal and visual communication—the days of pencils and typewriters—technical
communicators were technical writers (Dragga 29). The writer’s only job was composing words. More
and more often, however, the modern technical writer is a technical communicator—in charge of
choosing typography and graphics as well as words, designing pages as well as checking spelling.
Technical writers have a whole new host of judgments to make, all of which affect a document’s
meaning: format, wording, paragraphing, and placement (Dyrud). This new ability to design information
has given the technical communicator a new rhetorical power, and with that new ethical obligations. We
now understand that contemporary technical communication is involved in communicating not only
technical information but also values, ethics, and tacit assumptions represented in goals. In a way they are
involved in accommodating the values and ethics of its many audiences—an understanding that is linked
to an awareness of the social nature of all discourse and the root interconnectedness of rhetoric and ethics.
As a trade-specific understanding of ethics is part of every field’s identity, rhetorical power is a source of
peril and conflict for technical communicators without guiding principles and practices, and the ethos
portrayed by technical communicators determines the value of their work, ethics do apply in professional
technical communication.
Although some technical writing is assumed to be so dry and formulaic that ethics is a non-issue
(Dyrud), a trade-specific understanding of ethics is part of every field’s identity and signifies professional
status, including that of technical communication (McBride). Adhering to ethical standards are part of
what identifies and in some sense legitimizes these professions—like law and medicine, for example. In
fact, one of the first things that aspiring lawyers and doctors must do is take the oath of their profession
that commits them to uphold certain ethical standards. The implied standard of conduct that stems from
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these ethics provides a certain level of credibility and sense of respect to the profession. While technical
communicators are not required to take an oath and ethical matters may be much more subtle in technical
communication than in professions dealing with law or medicine, ethical obligations still apply.
The newly appointed rhetorical power of the profession is a source of peril and conflict for
technical communicators because little research or guidance is available to identify the principles and
practices that would lead to ethical document design (Dragga 30). For instance, the STC Ethical
Guidelines for Technical Communicators is of little aid to ethical behavior with the exception of advising
a communicator to hold him/herself responsible for how well the audience understands the message—
buried as the fourth item in a bulleted list of seven professional guidelines with at least three having
nothing to do with ethics. Practicing professionals typically ignore these guidelines and other theoretical
discussions of ethics in technical communication, instead preferring books and magazines that identify
specific strategies for success on the job (Dragga 31). Of the professionals who are aware, only a small
portion have even accepted the STC code of ethics (Clark 190). Furthermore, technical communication is
not guided by purposes that are shared, which also add to the peril and conflict within the profession.
People who work primarily as scholars and teachers of technical communication tend to do so on the
basis of purposes that differ from those that work in the field for an organization (Clark 190). Those who
work primarily as professional technical communicators tend to discuss ethics in the immediate and
practical context of the experience and the interests of their particular organizations and profession (Clark
191). They advocate an ethics in which competence is the principle and market success the purpose that
guides good technical communication. Conversely, those who work primarily as scholars tend to discuss
ethics in a more abstract and theoretical context that addresses broader interests (Clark 192). They
advocate an ethics in which responsibility is the guiding principle and the protection of society’s interest
the guiding purpose. Finally, differing opinions on the ethics that guide the communication of technical
information also add to the peril and conflict within the profession. These opinions are divided amongst a
variety of personal viewpoints pertaining to common practices, specifications, reader’s responsibility,
writer’s responsibility, writer’s intentions, consequences, judgments, principles, or insufficient
information, all which may be influenced by psychological and social issues pertaining to each individual
(Dragga 35).
Technical communicators need to consider the ethos they present in their work in order to
communicate effectively. Success in any profession depends on the audience’s perspective, and
workplace politics and pressures inevitably affect the ethicality of an individual’s work. First of all, the
credibility of a message relies on the public character the communicator represents as judged by the
audience, tying into ethos, which is the “public reputation one acquires by acting in a particular societal
role” (Campbell 135). For example, a businesswoman’s specific way of conducting corporate meetings
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and of running her company as well as her way of acting as a businesswoman will determine the
professional ethos, and therefore the credibility, that she conveys. Adhering to a corporate ethos,
however, can potentially lead to ethical problems for the technical communicator, which is another reason
why technical communicators need to consider the ethos they present in order to communicate ethically.
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 public policy. This delimits a communicator’s own ethos within the organization by
parroting company policies and standards—therefore reinforcing subservience as practitioners who apply
a prescribed set of skills to their work rather than as professionals who consider the implications of their
work as it’s produced. Lastly, we cannot assume that one group’s judgment represents a universally
agreed-upon 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, more diverse audience with different needs—the public. As Eve
Walsh Stoddard notes, “although we can define a writer’s ethos independently, it cannot be used
effectively without consideration of specific audience attitudes and interests,” and “different audiences
with different purposes will regard various types of intelligence and character negatively or positively”
(232).
Given the centrality of the art of discourse to human, social, and political endeavors, it is not at all
surprising that academics, preachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and an almost incalculable host of others
have all attended closely to the problems and possibilities of human communication. This breadth of
attention to the power and art of discourse by groups and individuals with fundamentally different
purposes and orientations has produced a wide range of approaches to the study of human
communication. The development of a better understanding of the very act of communication in all
professions inherently involves ethical considerations. As a trade-specific understanding of ethics is part
of every field’s identity, rhetorical power is a source of peril and conflict for technical communicators
without guiding principles and practices, and the ethos portrayed by technical communicators determines
the value of their work, ethics do apply in professional technical communication.
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Works Cited:
Benson, Phillipa. “Writing Visually: Design Considerations in Technical Publications.” Technical
Communication 32 (1985): 35-39. Print.

Campbell, Charles P. “Ethos: Character and Ethics in Technical Writing.” IEEE Transactions on
Professional Communication 38 (1995). Print.

Clark, Gregory. “Ethics in Technical Communication: A Rhetorical Perspective.” IEEE Transactions on


Professional Communication 30.3 (1987): 190-195. Print.

Dombrowski, Paul M. Ethics in Technical Writing. Technical Writing, SUNY Institute of Technology,
n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2008.

Dragga, Sam. “Is This Ethical? A Survey of Opinion on Principles and Practices of Document Design.”
Technical Communication First Quarter (1997): 29-38. Print.

Dyrud, Marilyn A. What About Ethics? Dept. of Communication, Oregon Institution of Technology,
1998. Web. 26 Oct. 2008.

McBride, Alicia. “Towards a Sense of Ethics for Technical Communication.” Orange Journal 3.2 (2005).
Web. 29 Sep. 2008.

STC.org: Ethical Principles. www.stc.org, 2007. Web. Sep. 30. 2008.

Stoddard, Eve Walsh. The Role of Ethos in the Theory of Technical Communicators. Ed. Carol M.
Barnum and Saul Carliner. New York: Macmillian, 1993: 15-41. Print.