Exploring the Relationship Between Plain Language and Ethics

Karen Baker, MHS

I recently watched a video where a patient defined “hypertension” as “when you’re not able to sit still.” It made me sad—and reminded me (again) why plain language, or clear communication, truly matters.

Since our founding in 1975, Healthwise has been committed to producing health information that people can understand. That was years before plain language became a discipline, a movement even, and the worthy focus of conferences, organizations, and workshops. Now there’s a new book on the topic, Plain Language and Ethical Action, by Boise State University technical communications professor Russell Willerton. Russell created the BUROC framework (bureaucratic, unfamiliar, rights oriented, and critical) to identify situations where audiences will benefit from plain language. He interviewed experts and advocates around the globe, and profiled six organizations that practice plain language, including Healthwise.

Russell and I talked about his book recently:

What gave you the inspiration for the book?

I chose this project because I thought the connections between plain language and ethics had not yet been explored thoroughly.

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) published a collection of articles and papers on ethics in 1989. In the preface, one of the co-editors explained that the collection would not cover plain language because it "is not necessarily an ethical concern." I had the sense that plain-language professionals would have a different opinion [some] 25 years later, and many do believe plain language has an ethical component.

I thought about the kinds of situations in which plain language tends to be valuable, and I created an acronym, BUROC, to describe them. Healthwise certainly creates content to help consumers deal with the BUROC situations they face regarding their health and medical care.

Whom do you hope will read it?

Aside from everyone? I hope it will be a resource for students and professionals in fields like technical communication, health literacy, and even medicine. I hope that people who are already fans of plain language will find it useful. I hope that people who don't know much about plain language will see how plain language can be valuable.

The book has some "academic" parts and some "nonacademic" parts. I hope they complement each other well.

What surprised you as you did your research?

For a while, the Center for Plain Language had this statement as a tagline on their website: "Plain language is a civil right." That statement came from former Vice President Al Gore, who promoted plain language in his work on the National Project for Reinventing Government. I asked 25 plain-language professionals around the world whether they agree with that statement, and not all of them did. I'd expected to see more agreement. That said, the discussion about whether plain language is a civil right is one of the more interesting parts of the book for me.

Another surprise is in the variety of ways that people can "do" plain language. There are several examples of organizations (including Healthwise) that create plain-language documents, and each is different from the next.

In an ideal world, what will be different as a result of this book?

I hope that students will see the value of plain language, and that they will be interested in applying their skills to address BUROC situations.

Similarly, I hope that professors will pay more attention to the plain-language movement, and that they will encourage students to tackle BUROC situations. I hope that professionals who read the book will have a few more ideas to use on future projects.

Finally, I hope that everyone who reads the book will reconsider what it means to be ethical. Most of what we hear about ethics in the workplace has to do with large-scale ethical failures like Enron's collapse or Bernie Madoff's thievery. In the perspective of dialogic ethics covered in the book, we see that our individual relationships reflect our ethics. We can be more ethical people in the ways that we speak to others and listen to them. We can spend less energy talking "at" someone and more energy talking "with" someone in a true dialogue.