Public and professional writers write not just to impart information but to effect change or bolster the status quo; establish patterns of behavior or break inappropriate ones and realign thought or prevent independent thinking. And writers know they can do it. So do their employers. That’s why they use them. But as Anne Surma rightly asks, should writers be simply tools of corporations and bureaucracy?
When writing “obscures some important ethical implications of our writing practice” (Surma p20), and has impacts beyond the job and the clients, are writers morally obligated to take the effects of their work on the public into consideration. Should they ‘Sell their souls’?
Why shouldn’t a political speech be as factual and accurate as a health and safety manual? Why shouldn’t there be a code of practice for writers? A writer’s code that might emphasize truth and fact over spin for instance.
In practice, the writer’s ethical choices can literally be matter of life and death. For instance Piper Hoffman’s 8 Common Medical Tests You Shouldn’t Let Your Doctor Perform article on the popular site, Care2.com is an example of extremely doubtful writing practice. While not a report itself, it reports on the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommendations about which medical tests are worth government approval and which aren’t.
Worth it to whom? Certainly not women. Here’s a sample of the USPSTF findings:
- Doctors should not teach breast self-examination to female patients.
- There is insufficient evidence to determine whether the benefits of screening adults for glaucoma outweigh the risks. (It’s a puff of air given as part of a normal eye examination)
- Doctors should not test women for ovarian cancer.
Few people will read the USPSTF reports but many will remember Hoffman’s 8 points. If I had believed her, I would be dead of cancer and heart disease. My mother died of ovarian cancer. So I have a personal interest in this debate.
Hoffman deceives her readers, she skews, omits and is unashamedly biased. What is her personal interest? Does she have shares in health insurance? A clear example of her unethical behavior is that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is not “an independent panel of non-Federal experts”. It is funded, staffed, and appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ to look at the “net benefit” of medical tests i.e. the benefit to cost ratio for insurers, health care providers and the government. NOT the individual’s benefit.
Hoffman agrees uncritically with so the so-called experts on the panel. However according to the USPSTF website, its panel is composed of ‘internists, pediatricians, family physicians, gynecologists/obstetricians, nurses, and health behavior specialists’. So according to Hoffman, a P plate doctor is an expert on a nation’s health?
Note how Hoffman picked out the tests women need in her article as being the most unnecessary. Then she attacked doctors saying “Get to know the USPSTF’s recommendations in case your doctor wants to perform unnecessary or even harmful tests.” She saved her sycophancy for the USPSTF with her comments like “Enter an obscure hero: the USPSTF”.
A truly dangerous and unethical writer, Hoffman needs to question her ethical stance towards her readers but so too do the writers who work for the USPSTF quango and that’s another story.
Hoffman, Piper. 8 Common Medical Tests You Shouldn’t Let Your Doctor Perform. Care2 Causes Web. April 12, 2013. http://www.care2.com/causes/8-common-medical-tests-you-shouldnt-let-your-doctor-perform.html
Surma, Anne. Public and professional writing: ethics, imagination, and rhetoric. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.