Skip to main content

Is Our Storytelling Ethical?


That’s a question that feels complicated and even uncomfortable, right? Is our storytelling ethical? And what does it mean to tell stories that are ethical?

This isn’t a topic for a single blog post. So, expect more from me in the weeks and months ahead.

First, let’s define some terminology.

the activity of writing, telling, or reading stories

relating to beliefs about what is morally right and wrong

As a self-titled master storyteller, I’ve lightly touched on this topic for years. But it’s no longer a topic to skirt around. As a speaker, trainer, and coach, with a focus on storytelling, I need to be deep IN the conversation about how to tell stories in a dignifying way.

Today my question for both you and me is: What does it mean to be making ethical choices as we share stories in the social sector?

To gather and share ethical stories there are a number of important questions to ask. Here are a few:

  • Do we have permission to share the story we are telling?
  • For how long and in what formats do we have permission to share the story?
  • Is the story being told representing diverse perspectives? Should it?
  • As we share stories about people from vulnerable communities are we jeopardizing the dignity of the person in the story?
  • Who and what are the benefits of telling this story?
  • Does the subject of this story lose anything by having the story told?

Building on those questions let’s define two more words: empathy vs. sympathy.

Sympathy is a distancing emotion. Sympathy, while possibly sounding noble, puts the person who might be struggling in a place of being judged. We may even have a feeling of relief that we aren’t in the position of the person in the story.

In my humble opinion, sympathy-evoking stories are usually disrespectful and may even be harmful.

Empathy is connecting emotion. When we have empathy we experience a feeling of understanding. It’s when we choose to look at things from someone else’s perspective while attempting to understand why they feel or act the way they do.

Here’s what I know for sure: Ethical storytelling is an incredibly important and nuanced topic. It requires discussion, disagreements, and active listening to understand and wade through its complexity.

If you’re like me, you need to give this some thought and determine how best to incorporate best practices for ethical storytelling into your communications. Here are a few resources to get us started as we take this journey together:
ethical storytelling community has many resources for us.

Take a look at their ethical storytelling pledge by clicking on the image at the right or visiting their website.

Free ethical storytelling webinars can be found here.

Community-Centric Fundraising is changing the conversation about how fundraising is done in the nonprofit sector.

A thought-provoking read:
7 Ways to tell Stories Ethically: The Journey from Exploited Program Participant to Empowered Storyteller.

Caliopy Glaros, founder of Philanthropy without Borders, has created evaluations, workshops, training and coaching about ethical storytelling.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, feedback, and any links to other helpful resources.

Leave a Reply