Visual Ethics

By Kienzler, Donna S. | The Journal of Business Communication, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Visual Ethics


Kienzler, Donna S., The Journal of Business Communication


Scholars note that the most frequent conflicts in business ethics today center around issues of honesty in communication (Shaw & Barry, 1992, p. 19). In his review of ethics research in business communication, Reinsch (1990) notes that communication scholars agree that communication choices have a moral, or ethical, dimension (p. 256). Miller (1989), in her widely quoted article "What's Practical about Technical Writing?," recasts professional communication "as a matter of conduct rather than of production, as a matter of arguing in a prudent way toward the good of the community rather than of constructing texts" (p. 23), a highly ethical description of communication because of its emphasis on the common ethical standard of community good. Stotsky (1992), in "Conceptualizing Writing as Moral and Civic Thinking," posits that most of the "intellectual standards" communicators are expected to meet in their writing "should also be seen as ethical responsibilities to their readers" (p. 799). In short, the ethical component of communication is widely acknowledged.

Although most scholars who examine ethics focus on text, another important aspect of professional communication, especially in these days of ubiquitous computer graphics packages, is visual communication. Whether from lack of skill or intentional ambiguity, creators of visuals can mislead their audience as surely as can creators of text. In fact, visuals can sometimes have more impact than their accompanying text, for three reasons. First, readers perceive visuals as a gestalt (Casner, 1990): therefore, visuals have an emotional impact that linear words lack. Second, skimmers of items will see visuals even when they don't read the text. Third, readers remember visuals longer. For example, Schafer's (1995) study found that people shown thousands of pictures recognized 99% of them later, but that the rate drops significantly for text. Thus distortions become more important as visuals play increasing roles in professional communication.

Research is now addressing the importance of visual communication. Scholars such as Tufte (1983), Zelany (1981), Gross (1983), and Ehrenberg (1980) have written extensively about basic principles and refining visual tools. Other researchers (Addo, 1994; Horton, 1990; Jones, 1995) have extended the basics and their refinements to computer graphics. Scholars such as Kostelnick (1988, 1990) are extending visual information specifically into the arena of business communication. However, the main emphasis in this research has been how to produce clear, effective visuals. Although the works do raise issues which are ethical in nature, ethics is not the focus of their discussions.

Today's professionally-oriented communicators will need both to defend themselves from unethical uses of visual aids and determine what choices are ethical in their own use of visuals. The purpose of this article is to address the ethical dimension of visual communication. It does so by focusing on two issues. First, general principles of ethics will be examined. These principles are then applied to a critique of visual aids. The critique addresses issues of construction, which include document design, the story told, and offensive material; and issues of numerical representation, including number manipulation and misleading graphs. I conclude by suggesting ways to ensure that visuals adhere to commonly accepted ethical standards.

General Principles of Ethics

Throughout this article I use the definition of ethics that is common in philosophical ethics and business ethics texts: Ethics is the study of what is good and right conduct (Shaw & Barry, 1992, p. 3). Ethics judges what is good and right by using such widespread standards as social rules and respect for others (Rachels, 1986) or historically famous standards like those championed by Bentham, Mill, and Kant. It deals with such standards as honesty, fairness, justice, and informed consent. …

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