How a writer presents information in a document can affect a reader’s understanding of the relative weight or seriousness of that information. For example, hiding some crucial bit of information in the middle of a long paragraph deep in a long document seriously de-emphasizes the information. On the other hand, putting a minor point in a prominent spot (say the first item in a bulleted list in a report’s executive summary) tells your reader that it is crucial.
A classic example of unethical technical writing is the memo report NASA engineers wrote about the problem with O ring seals on the space shuttle Challenger (the link provides further links to a wide range of information, including ethics analyses; the first link is the overview for what happened). The unethical feature was that the crucial information about the O rings (O rings provide a seal) was buried in a middle paragraph, while information approving the launch was in prominent beginning and ending spots. Presumably, the engineers were trying to present a full report, including safe components in the Challenger, but the memo’s audience—non-technical managers—mistakenly believed the O ring problem to be inconsequential, even if it happened. The position of information in this document did not help them understand that the problem could be fatal. Possibly the engineers were just poor writers; possibly they did not consider their audience; or possibly they did not want to look bad and therefore emphasized all the things that were right with the Challenger. (Incidentally, the O rings had worked fine for several launches.)
Ethical writing, then, involves being ethical, of course, but also presenting information so that your target audience will understand the relative importance of information and understand whether some technical fact is a good thing or a bad thing.
Chapter Attribution Information
This chapter was written by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0. Thanks to Eleanor Sumpter-Latham, Humanities/Writing Professor at Central Oregon Community College for contributing to this chapter.