Used with permission from gfpeck.

Ethical Storysharing: My Words, Not My Story

Posted on January 3, 2013 by WITNESS

If your story isn’t yours, what is? Ethical storysharing advocate Aspen Baker tells how her personal abortion story was used to fit someone else’s narrative. What are our obligations as advocates, as filmmakers, as editors — as storysharers? 

By Aspen Baker, of Exhale Pro Voice

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 — from an online news source dedicated to progressive women’s causes — to republish an excerpt of my work. They had chosen 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.

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 how 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:

Photo used with permission from The World Can’t Wait

 

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

Photo used with permission from gfpeck.

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. She’s the Founder and Executive Director of Exhale, an award-winning pro-voice organization that creates a supportive, respectful culture for each person’s unique abortion experience. 

What Others Are Saying

  1. Juliet March 3, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Thank you very much for this post. As a storysharer myself, to make sure the voice of the storyteller is heard has always been one of the most important thing while adding words, images or other media to make the stories more enticing so that the story can spread to inspire more people via the right channels. Stories are powerful because of the emotional connection the storyteller has to the stories, and I think by respecting that connection is the first step to a ethical storysharer…

  2. business plan proposal February 28, 2013 at 6:53 am

    It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before ending I am reading this fantastic article to improve my knowledge.

  3. Jen January 17, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    It’s deplorable, yet unfortunately so common, to twist and turn words in this manner for the benefit of someone other than the original author. Thank you for reminding us that there is risk and vulnerability in storytelling and thank you for sharing. The tides are turning…old scripts are being replaced with new shifting thoughts and language thanks to the many stories shared through your work.

  4. Christina Haas January 3, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    In trying to write and share more of my story, this lesson certainly gives me pause to think carefully about the what to share and how to share it. Thanks for the reminder that the devil is indeed in the details.

  5. Madeleine January 3, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I love this. As a journalist, I’ve always felt that bearing someone’s story is like holding their child in my hands–a great honor and immense responsibility. But I know–from so many reluctant interviewees who share their experiences of being burned–that this isn’t always the case. This is such an important issue–thanks for brining it to greater attention.

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