Content Warning: Readers should be aware that this blog includes references to the topic of sex trafficking. Alternatively, you can review Alyssa Scott’s earlier YNPN-TC blog on responsible storytelling or the resources listed at the end of this blog.
Communicators have the honor to interview and share the stories of people around us—both those who have lives like our own and, when appropriate, those with experiences that are far different. When sharing stories based on the words and life experiences of another person, we should feel two responsibilities.
The first (and the one we think of most) is to our organizations. When done effectively, the stories we share are meant to fulfill our organizations’ objectives by demonstrating its goals, values, and operations—indeed, it is the understanding of this responsibility that separates excellent communicators from those who skip from task to task and write stories that are fun or easy (which is great, but may not be effective in driving support for your organization).
The second responsibility is one that, in the pursuit of the first goal, communicators (including myself) can too easily forget: it is a responsibility to respect and protect the individuals whose stories we share. These are not mere characters on a page; they are people trusting us with their names, reputations, and experiences, and they are the people who will have to live with the effects of their story being published for the world to see.
Over my career, as I have grown in my understanding of this dual responsibility, I have become increasingly preoccupied with questions of equity and bias, along with the power communicators hold due to our roles as storytellers and gatekeepers of information for our organizations. Whether it was an instance where a coworker asked me why I thought it was acceptable to shorten and reshare a previously published story without asking the person profiled whether the content I cut was important, or times when I did interviews mostly to get soundbites to fit into my preformulated story, I have come to recognize that my organization-centric view of communications means I can allow my biases and privilege drive my communications choices—a situation that may seem harmless but could be hurtful (or even harmful) to the individuals whose stories I share.
This problem was made even more clear for me recently as I did coursework and research at the University of Minnesota to conclude my Strategic Communication MA and minor in Literacy and Rhetorical Studies (LRS). As part of my LRS curriculum, I was fortunate to take courses alongside teachers and social workers, and they shared with me the deep discomfort and dislike they feel when their organizations’ communicators ask them to suggest people with “interesting stories to share” as they are concerned about how communicator may misuse or co-opt the individual’s story.
While I was taking a course on research with marginalized populations where the topic of sex trafficking served as a lens, I discovered articles by Dr. Karen I. Countryman-Roswurm and Bailey Patton Brackin (Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University) focusing on the problematic storytelling practices of some anti-trafficking organizations. As I read them, I felt their words in my very core as they spoke to questions and concerns I have about the way I and other communicators think of storytelling:
Within the last two decades, media personnel, multidisciplinary professionals, and concerned citizens alike have taken note of this social-justice issue. Due to such increased interest, an unprecedented number of people are engaged in awareness efforts that claim to combat human trafficking. While most involved in such efforts are well intentioned, few are intentional.
Acts of awareness undertaken by allies are often harmful to the very victims and survivors they are declaring need to be ‘rescued.’ In the name of anti-trafficking awareness, survivors are frequently reexploited. Rather than being recognized or compensated as experts and leaders in the anti-trafficking movement, survivors are taken advantage of in the pursuit of a story that has emotional pull. (Countryman-Roswurm & Brackin, 2017, p. 327, emphasis added)
As we discussed the realities of sex trafficking and the complex path survivors must go on to find healing, I was struck by how important it is for victim-survivor to feel cared about, validated, and heard—particularly by the organizations they turn to for help. I also recognized and became alarmed by the potential harm I could cause if I were to come in solely focused on getting the perfect story for my organization. As I talked to other communicators about these concerns, I found others had the same concerns but were uncertain about what to do or how to change. This led me to structure my final research (a link is at the end of my blog) around a collection of interviews with anti-trafficking communicators so I could make recommendations for work practices communicators can use to balance their dual responsibilities to their organizations and the people whose stories they share.
As communicators, we hold a great deal of power. We are the ones writing the stories and picking the faces shown in publicity materials. While we are not journalists tasked with sharing the complete and unvarnished truth, therapists whose sole responsibility is to the betterment and healing of the individual, or novelists or screenwriters who are writing stories simply meant to entertain, all communicators must be conscious of our deep responsibilities when we use the words and experiences that belong to another person. Just as the words and experiences are not our own, we also cannot think of the stories we write as our property either.
As such, I hope other communicators will join me in viewing the establishment of ethical and equitable storytelling practices as an essential responsibility. This will allow us to use communications in ways that are not just strategic, but ethical and purposeful as well—both to serve our organizations and to respect and protect the individuals whose stories we share.
To learn more about my research on ethical storytelling practices, register for the YNPN-TC webinar I am facilitating on September 29, 2020. Alternately, you can also watch a video of my final research presentation (it is 19.5 minutes) and/or read my final Capstone paper.
- Ethical Storytelling Pledge (I highly recommend reading and signing the pledge and checking out their other resources)
- No White Saviors Website and Instagram
- Elmi House Productions (a business seeking to answer the question “What would stories look like, if the people whose stories are being told, were included in the storytelling process?” To help, Elmi House Productions is asking for responses and help sharing their Questions for Creatives of Color)
- Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership’s issue brief on Navigating the ethical maze: Storytelling for organizations working with vulnerable populations
- Best Starts for Kids Communications Guides with Examples of Guides for Equitable Storytelling and Asset-Based Message
- RADI-AID's Social Media Guide for Volunteers and Travelers