Ethical Storysharing: My Words, Not My Story

posted January 4, 2013

Once you put a personal story into the world, you have no control over where it goes.  Someone can label it with a hashtag, add it to a tumblr, or remix with other stories. It can become an entirely different story altogether.  It happens all the time--just ask Carolyn Jones or Kassi Underwood.

And it just happened to me. Again.

As filmmakers, writers, publishers, activists, and leaders we work with others’ stories. We are storysharers more than storytellers, and we have an obligation to prioritize the original storytellers’ voices and messages. We cannot just look for stories that best convey our own agenda. My organization, Exhale, has written guides helping advocates to storyshare responsibly and to help women make decisions about when and how to share their stories. 

As a storyteller, I was thrilled by an offer to republish an excerpt from my essay, “My Abortion Brought Us Together,” from Nothing But the Truth So Help me God: 51 Women Reveal the Power of Positive Female Connection. The website was an online news source dedicated to progressive women’s causes.

What could go wrong? 

You can imagine my surprise when I saw my story had been repackaged and repurposed. The editors selectively edited my essay. They labeled my words with a title, summary, and subtitles.

My story is about how the difficult experience of an abortion strengthened my relationships and gave me life-long friends. The story they told was about how keeping abortion stories private is strange, and my abortion was a good decision.

Most of all, they added a large image. Images—both photographs and video—are tremendously powerful. Media and change makers are using images more frequently and more centrally to share messages and ideas across social platforms. This image conveyed a message that was fundamentally counter to the message from my story. My essay conveyed understanding, acceptance and relationships; the photo blared the opposite: “Abortion without apology.”

This is the photograph they chose:

This picture sends a message, too, and a very different one:

Over the course of two days I requested that they change the editorial context of my essay to match my message. But they declined, claiming that there was no factual error.

Turning complex, personal stories into simplified political talking points is the very danger Exhale warns against. It is also the danger I wrote about in my essay: “our personal stories can be used to divide us – others can use our stories as evidence on either side of an argument – or they can be easily dismissed as just another tactic in the political debate.” Neither my words nor my message made the editors’ cut.

Amy Hill, Director of the Silence Speaks program at the Center for Digital Storytelling has worked with many people sharing stigmatized stories, including abortion. In my interview with her, she shared how the context of war and conflict over abortion make sharing that much more challenging for women:

“And we can’t forget the emotional risks of sharing…It seems to me that those on both sides of this war who lament women’s lack of willingness to share their individual stories are failing to see what a monumental request they are making of such women. They seem to view stories as fodder for their battles, as commodities that will assist them in winning…rather than considering what it would like to put their own most personal struggles and life decisions out on the table, for all the world to see.” 

Exhale has had significant success working behind the scenes with journalists, editors, bloggers, entertainment writers and producers to shape editorial context that is supportive and respectful. We need more allies.

Whether you are crafting documentaries, web videos or posting news online, it’s crucial you get more than just the storytellers’ sign-off, especially when personal stories are stigmatized, marginalized or put the teller at risk. Their message and their meaning must come through so that when they see the finished product they recognize it clearly as their own. 

Next month, Exhale is producing Sharing Our Stories: Exhale’s National Pro-Voice Tour where storytellers will be traveling the nation to talk with college students about their personal abortion experiences. One of the challenges our storytellers will face is that they will have no control over their story once it leaves their mouths. It’s a hard truth that we can neither protect them against nor save them from. But as a community of storytellers and changemakers —whether in words, images, or videos — we can take the lead and be ethical in our storysharing efforts.

Aspen Baker is the leading voice in the nation on personal abortion experiences. Aspen first shared this essay on the blog at WITNESS, the international human rights video advocacy organization and our ally in promoting ethical storysharing.

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