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Ethics and Analysis of Informative Writing

Ethics and Analysis of Informative Writing

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses the ethics of informative writing and analyzes examples of informative writing.

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Source: eBook # 10751. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10751. Schwartz HA, Eichstaedt JC, Kern ML, Dziurzynski L, Ramones SM, et al. (2013) “Personality, Gender, and Age in the Language of Social Media: The Open-Vocabulary Approach.” http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0073791.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be talking about how ethics and informative writing intersect, including a discussion about the two and some analyses of informative texts so we can see them in action.

As we know, the emphasis of informative writing is on imparting information and ideas as objectively as possible. So the goal for writers of informative texts is to remain as objective as possible, to maintain an outlook that's free of personal bias, and create a text free of unstated assumptions. And even though this isn't technically possible, as all writing-- even informative writing-- requires some interpretation of data, it's part of a writer's ethical responsibility to do his or her personal best.

Often this involves revealing biases or personal background information and letting the reader decide how to interpret it. But either way, what's important is that the writer doesn't betray the reader's trust.

When a text marks itself as informative, either by labeling or phrasing within the introduction, the reader is expecting to be informed objectively and neutrally. And so it's unethical for a writer to misrepresent, leave out or ignore, or otherwise skew information. If, for example, you were flipping through a health magazine and came across an article about a new vitamin supplement, you would assume that the writer is not a paid representative of the company that makes the supplement, right?

And you'd also assume that whatever the writer claims about the supplement is factually true, and that it doesn't leave out important details. Otherwise, it would be an advertisement. And we approach such text differently than we do text that we expect to be neutral.

So as you can see, there's an added responsibility for writers of informative texts. If, for example, a student writes an article for a college newspaper reporting on a controversial meeting-- say the administrators are deciding whether to allow political groups like anti-abortion or anti-war demonstrators to receive official status. And the reporter misrepresents what happened there, either to make it more inflammatory and exciting or to bias readers for or against a particular political side-- that would be unethical.

Note that if the student wanted to express her opinion about the issue, she could have written an editorial, which are articles in which newspaper readers expect to find personal arguments. That would be fine. Again, the added burden of objectivity applies only to writers who claim their texts are informative.

Now let's look at a couple different informative texts so we can see the way writers use this kind of writing to further their goals without betraying their readers' trust. The first text we'll look at comes from a book of travel journalism entitled Oregon, Washington, and Alaska-- Sights and Scenes for the Tourist. It's a fairly long excerpt, so pause the video and take as much time as you need to give it a quick read, looking as you do for evidence of the writer's biases and assumptions, as well as the purpose behind writing.

So this seems like a much more ethical approach to informative writing than the last imaginary examples, doesn't it? Here, we can see fairly easily how their author's purpose was to share information about this place, Crater Lake-- which is now a national park and a beautiful place, if you ever get the chance to visit it. In this text, the writer uses a combination of facts, like the elevation of the lake and how high the cliffs are; and more personal data, like the observation of how the water is so clear and still that it's hard to tell the cliffs from the reflection of the cliffs. This is very common in travel writing, as the purpose, generally, isn't just to relay information about the place, but to convey to readers the experience of being there.

If anything, I'd say that this is an overly objective account. Most of the travel journalism I've personally seen does much more to involve the writer's physical experience in the place. If, for example, this author had written about the way the cold alpine wind had twisted the trees over years and made it a good idea to bring a coat even in the summer, or talked about how bright the sun is up there, how clean and scentless the air seems to be, that would be more in line with the modern examples of this genre of informative writing. Still, even though the tone is a bit dry, lots of numbers and facts, and fairly little description-- especially considering the fact that it's writing about a place-- this is a pretty fair example of ethical, responsible, objective writing, wouldn't you say?

We'll perform one more analysis of informative writing-- a very different sort of text. So we can get a sense for not only the breadth of the genre, but for how, even in different texts about different topics and written with different purposes in mind, the fact that they are both informative writing means that they have more in common than not. Anyway, let's see what you think.

This is an excerpt from the results of a scientific study about trends and word usage on Facebook-- looking at what ages, groups, ethnicities, and genders use which words with what frequency. It's longer than the last text, and it uses a heavier syntax, or word choice. So pause the video and take as much time as you need. It's actually quite fascinating what these researchers did and what they found.

So as you can see, this author's purpose was quite different from that of the previous example. Though they were both trying to share information they have, here the information's a bit more complicated. And as such, it required a bit more interpretation. Even though I'd still say this is a good example of objective informative writing, you could make the claim that this author's biases are showing through.

Why, for example, does the last paragraph focus so much on the apparent possessiveness of male speech? Could this indicate an unspoken assumption of the writer's? Possibly. I personally doubt it. But the point, the reason I bring it up, is to say that anytime a writer-- like yourself in the future, most likely-- has to convey complex and nuanced information, it will require some level of interpretation. The point isn't to avoid all bias, as that's impossible, but rather to remain as fair and objective as you can.

Another thing to note about this text is the way it breaks down the information gained. Though this is a part of the article summary, and as such it doesn't contain much at all of the details about the research methodology, and experimental controls, et cetera, we can still see how interested the writer is in conveying what exactly the research was, and not just what was discovered.

We start with an explanation into what filtering techniques were used. So before readers even get the chance to see any of the information that the research found, we're being invited to explore and critique the methodology. This is very common in scientific writing, as a prioritization of transparency and the whole inviting readers into the conversation part of academic writing tends to mean that writers, like this one, will prioritize not just what they discovered, but how. This way, readers can evaluate the biases and assumptions of the writers themselves-- a good strategy for avoiding ethical complications, I'd say.

What did we learn today? We learned about the role ethics plays in informative writing by discussing the connections between them and analyzing a couple textual examples. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.