Everyone is a storyteller, and each story, a sacred gift that a person bestows upon you. 

This is not a blog post about the importance of storytelling in communications. In our work as communicators for justice, we know that stories — those that bring life to complex topics through personal experience — move people. Rather, this post is about how we can ensure that the people whose stories we share — which are oftentimes of struggle, trauma and deep pain — are not used as a pawn to push an agenda.  It’s about how we can practice ethical storytelling. 

These are a few ethical storytelling principles that we honor at Change, while keeping in mind that the art of ethical storytelling, and the way we capture and distribute stories, is always evolving:  

Each individual is human, not a story subject:
Come to the conversation with respect, a humble approach and ready to pivot. Respect the person’s process, and let go of your own agenda: meet the person where they are (figuratively and literally), know when to dig deeper, or when to pull back; laugh with them or let them cry. We work with people of so many backgrounds, yet are conditioned to ask questions through a Western lens. I once asked someone who was fighting to keep their home “what hopes and dreams they have for their family”, assuming they would give me a rosey, grandiose answer. He simply said “for my family to be safe and healthy”. We have to check our own privilege and the reality we function in, let it go, and immerse ourselves in the world of the storyteller.

It’s always their story:
When someone is trusting you with their personal story, set expectations, be transparent and ask for informed consent from the beginning. Tell the storyteller what they can expect from the process, why and how their story may be used and that they have a right to stop the process at any moment. A media release form does not mean we “own” their narrative. When we are communicating about urgent and important campaigns or issues, we may move fast, but if we’re truly committed to ethical storytelling, we can’t cut corners. Make sure that the storyteller is aware of any edits, placements or changes, and that their wishes are honored.

Compensate accordingly:
Paying directly impacted people for their time has to be a standard practice as part of any story collection process. Someone is not only giving you their time, but contributing to your campaign, website or policy work and should be compensated fairly. While the set amount may depend on your budget, always let the storyteller know up front that they are being compensated, and how much. Respect their wishes if they choose not to proceed.

Use ethical imagery and multimedia:
Photos and videos are beautiful and powerful ways to tell a story. Visuals should advance equity, instill a sense of ownership and power in the subject (rather than victimizing them), and honor their perspective. From who you hire, how you conduct photo and video shoots to the final product, every step matters. Water Hub and Survival Media have put together a great overview if you’re considering multi-media as part of your storytelling efforts. 

Follow up with gratitude:
And finally, follow up with your story subject and let them know how their story impacted and made your work a success. In our recent #DeliverBirthJustice, we thanked the mothers who brought the campaign to life, and, without whose participation, the campaign would not have been possible. This is a powerful and important way to build relationships, trust and, most importantly, let people know that their stories matter and are driving change.

Here are additional resources that can help you learn more about ethical storytelling:

Stay tuned for Change Consulting’s ethical storytelling framework coming soon.