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Ethical Storysharing, Part 2

April 19, 2011

(Frequent contributor Thaler Pekar recently delivered a lecture on the Ethics of Working with Story to Kent State University’s graduate program in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management. Click here to read part 1. The complete video of the lecture can be seen at her Web site, www.thalerpekar.com.)

Storytelling_night A wise person once said, "There are always three stories: the story you tell; the story you hear; and the story that is the truth." I will add a fourth: the story you are not hearing.

Thinking about the stories you're not hearing is critical to the ethical use of story. Do you have a responsibility to seek them out? Also, do you plan to label and publicly present the stories you do gather? And if so, how will the context affect the way the audience perceives those stories?

The way you choose to label stories -- "Stories from College Graduates," "Stories from Women," Stories from African Americans” -- can affect the way in which they are understood. When you label, you may lose some of the context and emotion that is critical to true understanding.

Similarly, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie warns, in a 2009 TED Talk, about the "danger of the single story." As Adichie says:

How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes, "That if you want to dispose a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, 'Secondly...'

Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, but not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story...."

(I encourage you to watch the entire twenty-minute talk.)

Be aware, as well, of other power imbalances, of people feeling they have no recourse but to say "Yes" when you ask them to share their story. Perhaps you want to use it in an advertising campaign or a public service announcement and are offering monetary compensation or an all-expenses-paid trip. Either may constitute a power imbalance.

Or you may be working with a stigmatized population, in which case you have a special responsibility to protect the sharer of the story. For example, you have an ethical obligation to share any knowledge you may have about what could happen to the person, personally or professionally, if they decide to share their story. Might you need to provide for the person's safety? Does the person sharing his or her story understand how s/he could lose control over the context in which the story is shared, especially in super-public places like YouTube?

The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction as well. I've often heard well-meaning nonprofit executives say "we simply can't tell this person's story; they are too vulnerable, and we must protect them." This, too, involves a kind of power imbalance. People have the right to be fully informed -- and to make their own decisions about whether to share, or not share, their stories.

Before you jump into story-gathering mode take a good look at your informed-consent documents. Better yet, have an outside expert take a look at them. You might want to offer choices about the ways in which an individual's story will be shared (e.g., anonymously, or only in certain circumstances or formats, or only with certain audiences).

Stories are extremely personal, powerful, and persuasive. They can affect great change in organizations, in the way a person perceives a situation or other people, and in the world. To be a true narrative leader, you must respect and uphold the highest ethical standards when gathering stories, sharing stories, and working with the people who choose to share those stories.

As I wrote in part one of this essay, your goal is to empower, not exploit. When you use story ethically, you enable people to be heard, respected, and celebrated.

-- Thaler Pekar

Comments

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My colleague, mentor, and friend Cynthia Kurtz responds to these essays, with brilliant, practical advice:
http://www.storycoloredglasses.com/2011/04/practical-ethics-in-story-gathering.html

It is refreshing to know that ethics still matter and to get such a good reminder of our
responsibilities as story tellers. Informed consent is extremely important. I would emphasize that “informed consent” means explaining possible consequences in language that the subject of the story can understandToo often our eagerness to get a story out blinds both us and those we want to tell about to the real consequences of revelation. Therefore, we must be sure to look at all unintended consequences. And, yes, don’t patronize people by making decisions on their behalf.

Thank you for bringing this up.

Context is just as important as content. Stories can easily change just due to how the storyteller relies the story. Two people telling the same exact story using the exact same words can produce two vastly different stories. We have to be very careful with how we tell a story.

Max Gentry
Zeiss scopes

Really interesting and nuanced posts -- I love the term "storysharing". Thank you for pointing me to them.

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