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Archive for the ‘Technical communication’ Category

The New (Media) Accident Report

In Business writing, New media, Technical communication on May 26, 2013 at 1:03 am

In the wake of accidents and catastrophes, there is a vacuum waiting to be filled with facts (or rumors). At least, there used to be a vacuum. That’s because there used to be weeks or even months between an accident and the release of the official report.

But things are changing.

From Briefing to Tweeting

The Mount Vernon (Skagit River) Bridge Collapse provides a glimpse of that change.

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman held an initial briefing May 24 regarding the bridge’s collapse, followed by a second briefing on May 25. Videos of the briefings are available on the NTSB’s YouTube channel.

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman briefed the media

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman briefed the media

Those types of briefings aren’t unusual. But look what happens when quotes from a briefing are distributed via the NTSB Twitter account. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lost in Transcription?

In Business writing, Technical communication on February 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm

What are we really capturing/documenting in accident reports? What is lost when statements and interviews are summarized in reports?

Take, for example, the following excerpt from an official police document meant to record narratives of a paper mill explosion that killed one employee and injured several others:

Police report summary of witness statement

Police report summary of witness statement

While narratives such as this are important elements of fact-finding research, the way in which they are written down “may inadvertently silence or render invisible the kinds of information that decision makers need to assess” accidents and make recommendations to prevent future disasters (to quote Beverly Sauer, who wrote about mining risks, see p 5 in “Rhetoric of Risk”).

The remainder of this blog post explores one surprising approach to improving the depth and accuracy of accident reports that include statements made by victims and witnesses. Read the rest of this entry »

Self-Reflective Warnings

In Business writing, Technical communication on May 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about the best practices and ethics of warnings. You see, the problem with most warnings is that they’re informational. That means they don’t connect with the reader and may end up reducing effectiveness by over-exposure. This can be the case even when the wording of the warning is intended to shock the reader into submission, such as the tobacco warnings in the UK:

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Read the rest of this entry »

Technical Communication and Apologia

In Apologetic rhetoric, Technical communication on December 9, 2009 at 9:34 am

Though many scholars, students, and practitioners in the field of technical and scientific communication may not have studied apologia or apologetic rhetoric, the field has gained new insight through this area of study.

One example is Michael Moran’s (2003) analysis of a commercial report written in 1586. The report was written by Ralph Lane in response to criticisms upon his return to England after leading a failed colony. Moran’s (2003) analysis helps establish the value of apologia theory as a lens for analyzing technical and business communication. Similarly, Carol Siri Johnson (2006) described how studying an apologia artifact may help scholars gain insight into technical processes. In her examination of the iron industry in early America, Johnson analyzed how Peter Hasenclever described the iron industry in a letter he wrote to justify his expenditures in 1773—thus, shedding light on the technical process of building ironworks and “the way knowledge traveled” before the use of printed technical manuals and reference books (p. 175). Additionally, Timothy Sellnow (1993) examined the use of scientific ethos in Exxon’s response to the Valdez oil spill, focusing specifically on the use of skepticism.

Finally, Sullivan and Martin (2001) described how apologia and account theory can equip technical communicators to better understand and evaluate justifications for their actions. According to Sullivan and Martin, technical communicators who are faced with an ethical dilemma should ask themselves what accusations could result from their decisions and “what story will I tell about it when called to give an account” (p. 269).

While these scholars have demonstrated the usefulness of apologetic rhetoric theories in studying technical communication, only Moran’s (2003) study actually analyzed a business or technical document using apologetic rhetoric as a method of analysis. In fact, in my analysis of 91 academic articles published over the last 40 years (published in Communication Yearbook 33), only three studies were identified as analyzing a business and technical document. That means, in addition to Moran’s (2003) study of Lane’s report, only two other studies over the last 40 years have focused on the use of apologetic rhetoric in business or technical documents—and both of those (Coombs, 2004; Huxman & Bruce, 1995) analyzed corporate position statements and news releases, rather than actual technical reports or documents.

The work by these scholars has helped establish how business and technical communication can be examined using apologetic rhetoric as a lens; however, a large gap still exists in understanding how reports and documents negotiate blame and responsibility as well as record acts of wrongdoing on the public record and shape the reconciliation process. My research in this dissertation extends the focus on apologetic rhetoric and documentation by analyzing how apologies are documented in the gacaca trial system and what role that documentation plays in the process of reconciliation.

I argue that technical communication is a burgeoning area of scholarship with the potential to reshape what is known about public apologetic exchanges and, therefore, deserves more focused research. I also argue that technical communication scholars and practitioners are perfectly positioned to research the bridge between technical communication and apologetic rhetoric as well as uncover and analyze the documentation, processes, and ethics of apologetic rhetoric.

An example of such an analysis can be seen in an earlier blog post on “Documenting Apologies in Gacaca Trials.” That post stems from my dissertation research in which I put forth two claims about the broader impact of the documentation setting in gacaca trials.

First, I demonstrate how Rwandan culture and values shape not only what is documented but the entire process by which it is documented—including which individuals give testimony; what questions are asked; and how that knowledge is quantified, measured, and recorded. In other words, the presence of these elements in the official document shapes the apologetic exchanges that take place by narrowing the attention of judges and requiring perpetrators to offer specific information in order to fulfill the requirements of the document. Second, I discuss how the presence of those elements in the document shapes more than just what is documented but also how the events of the 1994 genocide are discussed and remembered in the official government history.

Overall, the influence that documents and documentation processes have on apologetic rhetoric is under analyzed and too often overlooked completely. This is just one example that demonstrates why future studies on the impact of documentation and technical communication are warranted.

Related Posts on Technical Communication and Apologia:

Assignment for Business Writing, Technical Communication, or New Media Course

Why Technical Communicators Should Care About Apologia

Documenting Apologies in Gacaca Trials

Documenting Apologies in Gacaca Trials

In Rwanda, Technical communication on November 17, 2009 at 12:06 pm

In my dissertation, I argue that contextual factors such as politics, cultural expectations and documentation shape the apologetic exchanges—which can in turn shape reconciliation, identity, and membership in communities once torn apart by hatred, genocide, and human rights violations. In this post, I look specifically at how apologies are documented in gacaca trials as well as what influences that documentation may have on society in post-genocide Rwanda.

DOCUMENTATION IN THE GACACA COURT SYSTEM

The gacaca system is divided into two phases of documentation. The first phase—or fact-finding phase—comprised identifying and documenting a list of all the crimes that were believed to have taken place leading up to and during the genocide. This phase included identifying and documenting suspects and witnesses, offenses, and names of victims, as well as determining the appropriate category of each offense (Tiemessen, 2004, p. 61). The second phase consisted of trying the cases against the accused perpetrators and documenting findings of each trial (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004a, p. 6).

In other words, documentation is a major component of both phases—and, therefore, of each trial’s setting. Documentation is so crucial to the gacaca system that the Rwandan government produced an official training and reference manual for gacaca judges entitled Process of Collecting Information Required in Gacaca Courts. The manual provided detailed instructions regarding what information was to be documented, how it was to be gathered, and the procedures for filling out and filing 33 different gacaca trial documents—including documents such as “Death of Each Victim of Genocide,” “Distribution of Killing Weapons in the Cell,” “Road Blocks Erected in the Cell,” “Identity and Charges Against the Accused,” and “Notification of Verdict” (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b).

DOCUMENTING APOLOGETIC RHETORIC IN GACACA TRIALS

In terms of apologetic rhetoric, the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions (2004b) stated that understanding how the genocide was perpetuated and its effects requires “that whoever participated in genocide takes the initiative to confess, plead guilty, repent and apologise” (p. 5). These apologies are witnessed by judges, survivors, and entire communities, and they are recorded on an official government document entitled “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology.” This document includes sections for recording the identity of the accused, the crimes that person confessed to (including the exact nature, weapons used, time and place of the crime), the names of the victims as well as the names of any accomplices and witnesses. In addition, ample space is provided at the end of the document for a detailed handwritten narrative explaining how each crime was committed, as well as for two apologies to be written (one to “God the Almighty, The State of Rwanda and Rwandans” and the other to “Families of the victims”). Finally, the last section on that document includes space for a written description explaining how the perpetrator is prepared “to face and live with the survivors of the victims’ families” (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b, p. viii).

CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS AND DOCUMENTATION

In analyzing the information recorded in the “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology” document, I argue that gacaca trials are shaped by the search for and documentation of apologetic elements that Rwandans value. My field research in Rwanda in January 2009 resulted in the identification of four common characteristics of a successful apology: a detailed narrative of the crime or offense, a statement of sorrow combined with a request for forgiveness, the demonstration of sincerity and heart-felt remorse, and reparations (either symbolic or real). Three of these elements are evident in the official gacaca trial documentation of apologies.

In the “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology” a detailed narrative of the crime is documented in Sections II, III, and IV of the document. Specifically, Section II provides a list of information for judges to collect regarding each perpetrator—including individual crimes and information regarding the time, place, and weapons used in each crime.

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Section III also provides a list of information to be recorded by judges; however, this information focuses on documenting the human toll of the perpetrator’s actions, including the names of each victim (and any known nicknames), the names of their parents, and where each person’s body was placed after death.

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Section VI moves from quantified or objective data to a first-person narrative of the crime. In addition, rather than being completed by a judge, this section is designed to be handwritten by the perpetrator (or, in cases where the perpetrator is illiterate, to be written by the judge using the words of the perpetrator). According to the document, this written narrative should explain the “details of how each crime was committed” (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b, p. viii).

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Additionally, the statement of sorrow and request for forgiveness that Rwandans value are documented in the two sections designated for the two written apologies. The document also provides space for the perpetrator to record a “general” apology to “God the Almighty, The State of Rwanda and Rwandans” in Section VII and a “particular” apology directed to “Families of the victims” in Section VIII (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b, p. viii). Finally, the Rwandan need for symbolic or real reparations is documented in Section IX. Once again, this section provides space for the perpetrator’s written explanation of how he or she is prepared to face and live with the victims’ families.

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PLACING GENOCIDE ON THE PUBLIC RECORD

This information is gathered through ongoing dialogue (i.e., accusations and apologies) and is then recorded by the judges on the document. These documents are sent to the main office of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions in Kigali and are intended to be made publicly available both at the official Documentation Centre in Kigali and (in the future) online through a database website of featuring scanned images of these official documents. In that sense, these documents form a large part of the public record of the 1994 genocide not only in Rwanda but also around the world as researchers begin to gain access to and report on the findings in these documents.

SHAPING POST-GENOCIDE SOCIETY

While some people may be tempted to view such documents as merely recording and relaying information, it’s important to remember that documentation is in fact much more “complex, active, and creative” and “involves giving shape to information…for the practical interests and needs of specific audiences” (Dombrowski (2000, p. 3). One of the active ways in which documents give shape to information is focusing on the information that is valued or needed by a specific audience. For example, in the case of the documents and reports of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s, the tobacco industry’s “values strongly guided what technical information was reported and how it was presented” (Dombrowski, 2000, p. 170).

The point I am getting at is that “documents both reflect and structure activity at all phases of the process” (Sauer, 2003, p. 331; emphasis added). That is, the evidence that a group deems valuable, shapes not only what is documented but the entire process by which it is documented—including which individuals give testimony; what questions are asked; and how that knowledge is quantified, measured, and ultimately recorded in official documents. Moreover, since the documents provide answers and insight by which a group comes to understand a problem or event, we can say that social values shape the process of data collection and the documents, which in turn “shape our understanding of the worlds we seek to understand” (Sauer, 2003, p. 331).

The presence of these elements in the “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology” has two significant impacts on the documentation setting. First, it demonstrates how Rwandan culture and values shape not only what is documented but the entire process by which it is documented—including which individuals give testimony; what questions are asked; and how that knowledge is quantified, measured, and recorded. In other words, the presence of these elements in the official document shapes the apologetic exchanges that take place by narrowing the attention of judges and requiring perpetrators to offer specific information in order to fulfill the requirements of the document. Second, since this is the official document by which perpetrators place their admittance of guilt and repentance on the public record, the presence of these elements shapes more than just what is documented but also how the events of the 1994 genocide are discussed and remembered in the official government history.

FUTURE RESEARCH

These influences on the apologetic rhetoric and the entire process of gacaca trials are new elements in the analysis not only of apologetic rhetoric but also of reconciliation. Future studies on these elements in Rwanda as well as the impact of documentation in other areas recovering from genocide or human rights violations are warranted.

Charity in Truth: A Righteous Rhetorical Vision of Economics and Technology

In Rhetorical analysis, Technical communication on September 10, 2009 at 11:03 am

Although I don’t always mention social justice and ethics explicitly, these concepts are at the heart of many topics that I study, including apologies as well as the use of new media to deliver product recall and safety information.

In this post, I focus on a slightly different topic—that is, Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. However, based on the Pope’s focus on the morality of economics and technology, this topic not only fits my research interests in terms of social justice and ethics, but also in terms of the role technology plays in our society’s growth and development.

BACKGROUND

On July 7, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI published Caritas in Veritate (meaning: Charity in Truth). In the encyclical, Pope Benedict presents a “vision of a new economic order” and “a rethinking of how economic life is organized” (De Souza, 2009). While the letter focused heavily on the global recession, its broader message addressed the issues of social justice and morality that are reflected in our economic policies and technical aspirations.

METHOD

Using Fantasy Theme Analysis, we can examine these ideas in more detail and uncover the underlying vision they promote. This method of rhetorical analysis is based on Ernest Bormann’s theory of symbolic convergence and is ideal for examining how common themes reflect rhetorical visions of heroes and villains, values and beliefs, and symbolic reality.

ANALYSIS

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict’s call for a new economic order puts forth a rhetorical vision that emphasizes humanness, morality and social justice.

Often these rhetorical visions can be categorized in one of three competing explanations of reality: pragmatic (valuing expediency, utility, and efficiency), social (valuing trust, caring, and relationships) or righteous (differentiating between right and wrong, moral and immoral, just and unjust).

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict denounces a “pragmatic” vision of economic growth and activity by criticizing the negative aspects of capitalistic competition, commercial logic, and technocratic utility.

Instead, he puts forth a rhetorical vision that at times appears “social”—focusing on love, charity, and “human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity” (36). However, such social references mainly function to establish charity as an important element in human relations as well as to position financial markets and technology as human realities with moral consequences.

Ultimately, the rhetoric of Caritas in Veritate reveals a “righteous” rhetorical vision that chronicles immoral market activity and asserts a higher calling for economics.

As the encyclical progresses, charity is transformed from a dramatis personae or character in early social themes (such as charity as love, grace, and humanity) into a sanctioning agent that is used to delineate moral economic policies and uses of technology from those deemed immoral or unjust in Pope Benedict’s righteous rhetorical themes. These themes vilify free markets and purely technological progress as insufficient at best and destructive at worst.

In the end, the righteous themes not only become warrants in Pope Benedict’s argument for a new economic order, but also coalesce to construct a symbolic reality that explains today’s global recession and economic crisis.

Assignment for Business Writing, Technical Communication, or New Media Course

In Apologetic rhetoric, New media, Technical communication on August 12, 2009 at 8:51 am

BACKGROUND:

Whether it’s a product recall or malicious behavior by employees, companies are launching multi-prong responses that make use of the skills and training that business and technical communicators exemplify.

Take a look at just about any case in the news today in which a company is accused of some form of wrongdoing, and then check the company’s website as well as their social networking pages. Chance are, you’ll see skills  Read the rest of this entry »

Why Technical Communicators Should Care About Apologia

In Apologetic rhetoric, Technical communication on July 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why technical communicators should care about apologia or apologetic rhetoric. Here are a few thoughts I’ve come up with so far. Read the rest of this entry »