CDC strikes a balance between accuracy and clarity

The first big step toward creating good Web content is learning to live with the tension that always exists between subject-matter experts, who are your advocates for accuracy, and editorial experts, who are sticklers for clarity.

That tension is unavoidable at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where writers often start with inherently complex content and try to make it accessible to the general public.

With health-related information, accuracy is especially important because small errors can have big consequences. On the other hand, people are often looking for such information when they are under a great deal of stress, which studies have shown can take a toll on reading comprehension.

So where do you draw the line? Karen Morrione, CDC’s Web content team lead, makes no bones about her priorities.

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“My personal philosophy is that accuracy has to be our guidepost,” she said. “We have to make sure everything we do is scientifically accurate. After that, we want to make it as simple as possible for people to understand.”

However, Morrione does not believe accuracy can be maintained only at the expense of clarity.

Professional writers, educators and Web communicators create all the content that shows up on the primary pages at — that is, the home page and those that have direct links from the home page.

Their job is not to simplify complex ideas, which is the surest way to create misinformation. Instead, “we try to break things down into very simple components and re-express the complex ideas in simple language,” Morrione said.

And then the subject-matter experts get their turn. Scientists — in some cases, more than one — review all content before it's sent to the Web developers and then again before a page goes live. They are not just looking for inaccuracies but for any holes in the information that might leave room for doubt in a reader’s mind.

“Plain language is a huge burden, but it is one that we embrace,” Morrione said.

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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