Ethics is a tough topic. It would be easy to think of as “just do the right thing,” but what constitutes the “right thing” is not the same for everyone, thus making it somewhat difficult to pin down. In studying ethics, we have to remember that although legality and ethics are often spoken of together, they do not necessarily have to overlap. Just because something is unethical, does not make it illegal (e.g., failing to offer your seat on a packed bus to a pregnant woman). And there are certain things considered illegal that are not necessarily unethical (for example, the boy stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family; illegal? Yes. Unethical? Not really, but some may disagree). In the book, Johnson-Eilola and Selber make a point that sometimes ethics and legality do overlap: “Sometimes ethical and legal issues overlap, as with the Society for Technical Communication’s (STC’s) principles of providing truthful and accurate communication and respecting the confidentiality of a client’s business-sensitive information,” (Solving Problems in Technical Communication, p. 215).
I found that the book makes two interesting points when speaking on ethics and legality. The first point is that in order to appreciate one’s role as a technical communicator, there has to be an understanding of a technical communicator’s responsibility when generating content. “… Slack, Miller, and Doak (1993) argue for viewing the technical communicator as an active contributor to the meaning-making process as texts circulate across their contexts of production and use. They argue against relegating the technical communicator to the merely instrumental role of transmitter or sender of a fixed message determined by a technical expert such as an engineer, and they even argue that the technical communicator does more than translate an essentially static message to different audiences. Instead, the technical communicator is a full-fledged author who contributes to meaning making along with other producers and users, and who operates within and is constrained by channels of power, such as organizational pressures and cultural protocols” (pp. 216-217). In fulfilling an obligation to generate content, the technical communicator is responsible for what content will best put forward their message. In the example the book uses, Angela faces several challenging obstacles when trying to decide the best decisions to make when trying to work out what would work best for the companies she was working for, while also finding a way to somehow stay true to the intended audience. For example, the instance in which she was being asked to use the potentially misleading photos of patients that were outside the age range approved for the project. Angela has to decide what the best course of action is when deciding to move forward with that project.
The second interesting point I think the book makes is that while there are ethical issues with the decisions that Angela has to make, there can be legal issues for the client as well. “Like ethics, the law has been formed out of various value systems and spheres of influence and is relational and at least somewhat context dependent. …Further, some ethical principles, such as the technical communicator’s duty to instruct and warn, are also legal ones” (p. 218). This is another instance in which a technical communicator’s knowledge must reach further than only writing, or communication. The book discusses there must be a basic legal knowledge that a technical communicator must possess (p. 218) and this is important to protect the technical communicator as well as their client.