The Ethics of Stories

Charis Robertson

North East February 01, 2017

There are so many ways that stories can be exploitative. One of my pet peeves is when organisations first present a young person as ‘broken’ or ‘vulnerable’ and then reveal how they got involved and ‘fixed’ them. That’s dishonest, and it’s not a story. It’s propaganda.

How should pioneers share stories?

In 2016 I completed a Masters project, focussing on the ethics of gathering and sharing real life stories. The above paragraph is an excerpt from my reflective research journal, and was really the motivation for my interest and studies in this area. How do we tell stories within our communities? When can stories be helpful? When can they be oppressive?

As pioneers we regularly use stories to strengthen our vision, learn from experience, grow our community identity, woo funders, prove our success. Even this article for White Canvas is a story (about stories). So how can we share stories effectively - and ethically?

Hot Chocolate and stories

My practice context is youth work in Dundee, with Hot Chocolate Trust: a quirky, creative and holistic Christian youth work organisation which supports young people who have often experienced multiple traumas and who are frequently at risk of harm. In the past three years we have increasingly been using storytelling practices with Hot Chocolate ‘graduates’, now in their twenties, with whom we have long term relationships. We want to learn from their experiences and to help them make sense of their difficult adolescent journeys.

Clearly, inviting people to share their traumatic experiences immediately throws up multiple ethical issues. Never mind then gathering and sharing these stories further. But over and over again, the storytellers spoke of their desire to use their stories to help others. So, over time and in careful partnership with the storytellers and local artists, we developed a methodology which allowed some of these stories to be recorded and safely developed into a series of short films.

A practical method for sharing stories ethically

The methodology was crafted particularly in response to some key ethical issues. The following is a summary of these issues, and how I practically managed these throughout the process.

1) How can the storyteller’s identity be protected?

Given the highly sensitive nature of these stories, it was essential that the storyteller could not be identified. This was managed by: (1) editing out any names or specific details which could identify the storyteller; (2) letting them hear the edited story at least twice, giving them full control to make changes (including voice distortion) as they felt appropriate; (3) working through a detailed consent form with them, identifying the contexts that they felt happy (or not) to share their film in.

2) How can we make sure the story is not exploitative?

Real life stories can become exploitative when they sensationalise events, manipulate emotions, serve as propaganda to promote a specific agenda, act as an advert for a service/organisation, or set up storytellers for failure if they cannot sustain their ‘recovery’. This possibility was minimised by: (1) including the key elements of their story as they presented them, whether they spoke about Hot Chocolate or not; (2) ensuring a balance when editing, between struggle versus hope, and between capturing their experiences/reflections versus moralizing; (3) editing out the specific details of their traumatic experiences and (4) deliberately editing the story so it doesn’t have a neat end point.

3) What if the process re-traumatises the storyteller?

When re-living difficult past experiences, it was very possible that the storytellers might have become upset. However, according to my research in the disciplines of health and psychology in particular, as well as my own past youth work experiences, this is rarely a negative experience if managed well. This is especially true within the context of existing trusting relationships. I managed this ethical challenge by: (1) not avoiding going to the ‘tough places’ with the storyteller if they chose to do so; (2) containing their emotion through active listening, reassurance, and doing regular check-ins with them throughout and (3) offering follow up support/referrals if appropriate.

4) What if the films trigger traumatic memories/experiences in the audiences?

Given the nature of these real life stories, it was also very possible that the audiences might have become upset. As above however, the careful management of any emotional responses need not necessarily be a negative experience, and can even produce positive and cathartic outcomes. I managed this by: (1) establishing clear expectations with the audience in terms of emotional safety; (2) always giving ‘trigger warnings’ around the issues raised in the films; (3) offering different options for how the audience can respond safely; and (4) offering follow up support/referrals for anyone affected by the stories.

5) How can the storyteller have control of their own story?

This was a very important question in light of my research around representation, and who has the right to speak on behalf of someone else. The following actions helped address this area of ethical research: (1) building in clear points in the process for the storyteller to feedback, edit, critique and remain in control of their story; (2) ensuring that they knew they could pull out of the process at any point; (3) working through a detailed final consent process, offering different options for where they were happy (or not) for their film to be used; (4) assuring the storyteller that they, at any point in the future, were able to request that their film is no longer used. We took this extremely seriously. In fact on one occasion when the storyteller did not think that the visuals used were representative of their story, we re-contracted the artist to completely redo the visuals.

The above might seem a bit abstract or theoretical, so I’d encourage you at this point to watch one of the films, Beautiful Disaster, embedded above, as a worked example of the methodology. (Please note that this film is not to be downloaded or used publicly without explicit permission from Hot Chocolate Trust).

Stories are a huge part of youth, community, missional, and church work. But unless we grapple with the ethics of which stories we share, how they are shared, and who does the sharing, we risk exploiting and oppressing the very people and communities we seek to serve.

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Charis Robertson

Charis Robertson

Charis is the Assistant Director (Development) for Hot Chocolate Trust, an innovative and creative Christian youth work organisation in Dundee. She has recently completed her MSC CLD in the area of ethics and impact of storytelling, and is also particularly interested in the role of the arts in improving lives.