August 20, 2014

Navigating Privacy and Other Issues for Ethical Storytelling

I am spearheading a crowdfunding initiative for a mental-health agency. For example, one campaign focused on raising money for a house where young people get their lives back on track after a diagnosis. How do you tell an engaging story that protects participants’ privacy?

One way to address this question is to look at different ways to tell a story, which is useful in any social-change storytelling project, not only those concerning privacy. Another is to explore some ethical questions at play when we tell stories.

The Shape of Your Stories

As I wrote last week, a good story requires a protagonist. If you can’t identify your protagonist because of privacy concerns, you would seem to be in a pickle. And this particular pickle will be familiar to anyone who for whatever reason feels ‘stuck’ in their storytelling.

To get unstuck, consider some options.

Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a resident of the house; she might be a social worker, someone in the neighborhood, or the mother of a former resident.

You could have an actor portraying a resident telling a true story—a method that would also serve to highlight the need for privacy. Your audience might identify with the poignant struggle of these young people who feel they can’t even show their faces for fear of the repercussions.

Other ways to protect someone’s identity are to change the name, age, gender, or other details or to create a composite character out of several residents of the house. In any of those cases, honesty compels you to state that’s what you’re doing.

Yet another option is to tell a story in a medium in which the person does not have to reveal himself fully, like audio. My organization uses a 1-800 phone line to gather stories from families of prisoners and from former prisoners, many of whom are concerned about privacy.

Not all stories have to be told online or by email, where they might live in perpetuity. Some residents might feel more comfortable telling their story to a private fundraising event. Granted, that’s a risk: We all know how the presumption of privacy worked out for Mitt Romney with his “47 percent” comment. On the other hand, that was a keenly scrutinized presidential campaign, not a fundraiser for a mental-health charity’s good works with young people.

A more creative approach: Ask a writing instructor or teaching assistant from your local college to volunteer to lead a short fiction-writing workshop, and have residents of the house make up stories on a theme, like “home” or “dreams.” One resident might write about, say, his fantasies of a future self. Another might write a story in which her illness is transformed into a superpower. These tales might illuminate their lives and move your audience just as much as traditional autobiographical stories. (See filmmaker Adele Horne’s post on the Working Narratives blog about making films when subjects are reluctant to talk.)

The lesson here: Consider different narrators, media, and forms for your stories and you’ll have more ways to communicate the work of your organization.

The Ethics of Storytelling

The residents of this house are understandably concerned about privacy. People with mental illness may fear that they’ll face discrimination or rejection if they go public with their experience.

This issue of privacy touches on some larger ethical matters in social-change storytelling. The first set of questions is, “Who is the story about, and who is telling the story?”

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The novelist Chinua Achebe cited this proverb to explain why he became a writer, to represent his native Nigeria and Africa in a way that non-African writers had not.

It’s an important ethical question: Are you leaving out critical perspectives in your stories?

In the case of the mental-health agency that operates the house, the question is whether residents tell their own stories or, if not, whether they feel accurately represented by stories about them. The agency would have to ask for, rather than assume, an answer.

The second set of questions is, “Who controls the story, and how is it being used?”

Let’s say the lion’s tale is told to his satisfaction. (Evidently we are dealing with a pretty literate lion.) What happens to it from there? Is it sold to a hunting magazine so readers can learn better methods to kill big cats? Or are profits from the movie adaptation of the lion’s story used to protect his natural habitat?

These are questions that the Neighborhood Story Project, in New Orleans, has pondered since its founding in 2004. The organization has local high-school students, racetrack workers, Mardi Gras Indians, and others tell their stories in books, posters, and open letters. Not only do the writers tell their own stories but they get paid royalties.

The group’s co-director, Abram Himelstein, says, “The people we work with have a fraught relationship with the media. Middle-class reporters go into poor neighborhoods and tell stories about them and don’t pay, and in fact use those stories to sell advertising and subscriptions. The more incendiary the stories, the more profitable the enterprise. We do the opposite: People tell their own stories, and tell them correctly, and get paid for it.”

Not every storytelling project must pay its storytellers, but there is an ethical dimension to who controls a story and how it gets used. (Further insight into these issues can be found in the 2009 report, “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.”)

Here again, the house for youths with mental illnesses might simply ask residents and their families whether the use of their stories is to their liking; a disclaimer in plain English might be in order.

By considering the forms your stories might take and the ethical questions they raise, nonprofit groups can better create the change they want to see.

Once a week through Labor Day, Paul VanDeCarr will answer readers’ questions about how to use storytelling for social change. Submit your questions for consideration to Questions used on the blog will be edited and made anonymous.

Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that works with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers, and others to “change the story” on the big social-justice issues of our time. He is also the author of that organization’s publication “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers”; he is working on a second edition of the guide, this time for nonprofits and activists, and to be released this winter.

Find his organization at, on Facebook, or on Twitter at @wnstory.