When the censors stand in the way

A short while ago, my colleague Ellis Pratt wrote about censorship and asked what it might mean for technical writers. I can’t stop thinking about what he said — surprisingly, since it’s something I rarely thought about in more than 30 years as a technical communicator.

Ellis reported on the British Library’s effort to censor content — and its unintended consequence: A patron couldn’t read Hamlet because it contains violence. He noted that the British government has asked Internet service providers to block access to websites that might contain objectionable content. Then he asked us to consider what this could mean for technical writers:

If your content involves any topics that might fall under the filter (such as drugs, suicide, depression, esoterica, tobacco, guns, anorexia, and dieting), you may need to careful what you write if you want it to be seen in the UK.quill pen

If our prime directive as technical writers is to put our audience first, then we have to do our very best to deliver content without compromising its truthfulness or completeness. But how does that play out in practical terms?

I think that all efforts at censorship are doomed eventually to fail. The truth will out. That doesn’t mean, however, that governments (and others) can’t impose censorship very effectively for long periods of time. It’s happening right now in the largest country in the world. As an almost trivial example, while delivering webinars to colleagues in China, I force myself to be selective when citing outside resources. And I never say “You can google that.”

As Ellis demonstrates, it can happen here at home too. When it does, what should we do?

Taking it up another notch, what happens when the organizations we work for — governments or private companies — require us to distort or even conceal the truth?

The ethical questions are similar to those encountered by journalists, and they have no easy answers. Each of us must recognize our duty to our audience and to the truth. Each of us must understand the things that can stand in the way of that duty. Finally, let’s acknowledge that we’re all in this together and resolve to call on one another when we need help.

Originally published on the SDI blog, 29 August 2013

6 thoughts on “When the censors stand in the way

  1. Rickard Bergelius

    You can find censors much closer to home, In the company you are working for. We are told to put our audience first, and I think we should. However, I cannot remember ever seeing a manual or similar resource clearly stating the flaws and weaknesses of the product even though that would be quite useful for the user. Attempts to do so are often fiercely rejected by the manufacturer.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Rickard. We should understand that there’s a progression here: from emphasizing the product’s strengths and downplaying its shortcomings (sometimes permissible, especially in a marketing context) to withholding information that could help the reader surmount the shortcomings (irresponsible) to outright lying (out of the question). You’re right: sometimes our employers ask us to do one, two, or all three of these — and that’s what I was talking about when I said we have a duty to our audience.

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