Sunday, May 09, 2021

How sensitive to my audience should I be?

I regularly get questions about whether I’ve felt the need to stop using the examples I use in writing or in teaching based on an increased awareness about a particular issue or about the alleged behavior of someone featured in an example. I have always believed that if I’m about to read or teach something that the reader or student might find offensive or challenging that I have an obligation to prepare them for what is to follow.

Whenever I’ve used a video clip called “Tea and Consent” put out in 2015 by the Thames Valley Police in the United Kingdom, I preface it by warning viewers that the video uses a lighthearted metaphor for sexual consent, a clearly serious topic. I also alert people when a reading will include particularly violent or vulgar language.

Giving someone a heads up about something they might find challenging seems a gesture worth making to prepare them for what’s to follow.

But there have been times I’ve stopped using examples to make a point if the example includes someone whose behavior has been called into question. Often there are alternative examples that can be used and the alleged behavior not only risks offending people but also risks distracting their attention from the point I was trying to make.

There was a short clip from a movie, for example, that I previously used to make a point about the importance of fact-checking by going to the source whenever possible when writing something. In the clip, the main character gets into an argument about an author’s opinions with the guy in line behind him at a movie theater. Rather than prolonging the argument, the main character reaches behind a movie placard and pulls the real author out to tell the guy behind him that he knows nothing about his work. I’d been using the example for years when reports of the actor who portrays the main character allegedly committing sexual abuse surfaced. I made the call to stop using the film as an example to minimize the potential harm caused by seeing an accused sexual abuser on screen. That example was not essential to making my point. It was easily replaced by reinforcing the idea with the old journalist’s admonition that “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

When Bob Steele headed up ethics training at the Poynter Institute, he wrote some guiding principles for journalists. One of them was to recognize that reporting information could cause discomfort and to choose alternatives that still maximized the goal of truth-telling. In other words, if there are multiple ways to get to the truth of something and one of those ways is less distressing than others, the ethical choice is to choose that less harmful way.

When asked if I ever change the examples I use when writing or teaching out of concern of causing trauma for readers or students, my answer is that I do so if I truly believe there is an equally strong or stronger way to get my point across that doesn’t risk causing as much harm. I don’t change everything. Sometimes a heads up about what’s to follow is the best I can offer, but when an equally strong example is available to make a point I seize it because it’s the right thing to do.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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