By Russell Willerton | STC Member
This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact column editor Russell Willerton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I pondered what I should write for this edition of the ethics column, I thought back to something I learned about ethics from the scholarship of the late Tyanna K. “Ty” Herrington, JD PhD. She wrote about using the “axis-of-power” test to help determine an ethical course of action.
Testing Options for Ethical Value
In her 2003 book, A Legal Primer for the Digital Age, Herrington writes that some behavior may be legal without being ethical. Laws in the United States that supported slavery, for example, are clearly seen as unethical and immoral today. When the law does not identify a clear path toward making an ethical choice, we must consider the options carefully. Herrington describes three familiar tests of ethics before adding a fourth.
The first test is about universalization: could a certain path in a particular ethical quandary lead to behavior that is universally good? This follows the idea of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: if an action is universally right and ethical, then a person should do it categorically, without exception. If the action is not universally good, it might not be a strong ethical choice.
The second test involves existing practice: is this behavior frequently endorsed in a particular setting or industry? Herrington notes the test of existing practice puts the responsibility for a given message onto the audience rather than onto the creator of the message. This practice may mislead an audience without lying outright. When an existing practice leads to unfairness or an imbalance of power, it is likely unethical.
The third test involves utility: if the benefit of an action outweighs its detriments, or the balance favors the good over the bad, it may be considered ethical. Like the other tests, each test for utility involves a specific situation. While the utility test is frequently called a cost-benefit analysis, note that some costs, benefits, or detriments may be harder to measure or estimate than others.
Given the limitations of the first three tests, Herrington offers the axis-of-power test for identifying ethical outcomes in communication. The axis-of-power test is based on the concept that those who have power to act or communicate information to others also have responsibility to act and communicate honestly and completely, without hiding misdeeds, misleading people, or masking information. “In this way, communicators will not take advantage of others by misusing the power that comes with having information or controlling behavior” (Herrington 2003).
After the passage I quoted, Herrington points to an article she published (1995) on a federal government report about the 1993 shootout in Texas between law enforcement personnel and members of the Branch Davidian religious cult led by Vernon Howell (a.k.a. David Koresh). This article focuses on tables in a report from the Department of the Treasury, which include information on those who were injured or killed in the shootout. She shows that the tables listing the ATF agents are easier to read because they use mixed-case, 12-point type, and the wounds are described in familiar language (e.g., gunshot wounds to both legs, shrapnel wounds to the right hand). Herrington points out that the tables include even superficial injuries to the ATF agents. In contrast, the Branch Davidians (referred to as “cult members”) are listed in tables with all-caps, 10-point type that is less easy to read. Information such as the distance at which cult members were shot and killed is included. Because each wound the deceased Branch Davidians received is described in a separate line, readers get the impression that the ATF agents fired their weapons with skill and precision and that, for two Branch Davidians, fatal shots fired by fellow Branch Davidians were especially cruel. On the other hand, the Branch Davidians’ shots that hit AFT agents are described collectively (e.g., “gunshot wounds to both legs”), which diminishes the sense of the shooters’ skills. Those killed by ATF agents had a “weapon to wound” range of “distant,” while those killed by other Branch Davidians had ranges from “less than one inch” to “more than 4 ft.”
Herrington writes that the overall effect of the representation of information in the ATF report is to manipulate readers to focus more on the deaths and injuries suffered by the ATF agents than on the list of deaths and injuries to Branch Davidians. Even if readers do “peruse the graphics from beginning to end, they may not realize that four ATF agents died, whereas the total deaths of Branch Davidians resulting from the skirmish near Waco was six” (Herrington 1995\). In this instance, those who prepared the report used their power to present the information in a way that put the ATF agents in one light and the Branch Davidians in a different light. These differences in presentation do not pass the axis-of-power test.
Applying the Axis-of-Power Test
Herrington (2003) identifies several instances in which someone with more information or power in a situation could use it unfairly against someone else, failing the axis-of-power test for ethical behavior. Here are a few such situations:
Some companies work with hazardous chemical substances. Few such substances are banned by law. What if a new substance is technically different from a banned or restricted substance but is functionally very similar? How would you write about handling and transporting such substances?
Some companies are tempted to oversell their abilities or overinflate their credentials. What if you overpromise to land a contract that you know you cannot fulfill on time, while agreeing to a contract that is vague enough to make it hard to breach?
What if you get frustrated with a client or co-worker, and you make a design choice in a report that draws attention to something negative about that person’s performance?
What if you are a senior technical communicator with a lot of projects looming, and you offload an outsized number of projects onto a new hire under the guise of training that person?
J. Blake Scott discusses ethics using a fictitious company called Vaccitech that makes flu vaccines. The company has a new flu vaccine proven safe and effective for those from ages 5 to 49 (Scott 2013). While tests with younger and older people outside that range are ongoing, a marketing executive asks you to include pictures of toddlers and of senior citizens into marketing materials for the vaccine. Given your knowledge of the tests so far, should you do that?
Other areas in which the axis-of-power test may frequently prove useful include privacy policies and the handling of users’ personal online data, as well as obtaining individuals’ informed consent to participate in testing and data collection. If people really understood what your company would do with their data, would they provide it?
As Sir Francis Bacon said centuries ago, knowledge is power. As ethical technical communicators, we should avoid hiding knowledge or masking information in a way that leads people to make decisions against their best interests.
Herrington, Tyanna K. A Legal Primer for the Digital Age. Allyn & Bacon Series in Technical Communication. New York: Pearson, 2003.
Herrington, Tyanna K. “Ethics and Graphic Design: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Document Design in the Report of the Department of the Treasury on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Investigation of Vernon Wayne Howell also Known as David Koresh.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 38.3 (1995): 151–157.
Scott, J. Blake. “How Can Technical Communicators Work in an Ethical and Legal Manner?” In Solving Problems in Technical Communication, eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (2013): 217–236.