Ethical and Equitable Storytelling

February 26, 2021

The call for “storytelling” has become ubiquitous for communications professionals. As you seek to capture the stories of the people who attend your classes and use your services, you will be asked to work both with individuals whose lives are like your own and those with experiences that are far different. When doing this, It’s important to both remember the wishes of the people involved and consider the needs of your campus, college or unit.

As you balance these dual responsibilities, here are items to consider so that you tell stories in a more ethical and equitable way:

  • Consciously challenge misinformation, myths, and stereotypes through the use of asset-based messaging, being cognizant of your biases, and staying informed as thinking/messaging shifts in your field.
  • Understand the power dynamics of storytelling particularly when writing about students who receive financial support or take classes from your unit.
  • Ask the individual how/if they wish to be identified in the story and respect their choices.
  • Create authentic relationships so you can ask an informed third-party (preferably someone with a shared identity as the individual) to review your story for potential bias or mistakes.
  • Have in-depth and ongoing conversations with the individual about exactly how you will use their story (referred to as “deep consent").
  • Allow the individual to review your finished story, be clear about how you will respond to requests for changes, and allow them to withdraw their consent at any time.
  • Be intentional when choosing photography and learn about ethical photography considerations including why it is important to not misrepresent the diversity in your unit.
  • Consider whether you are the appropriate person to write a story or whether you should hire a freelancer; this should be a particular concern for white communicators writing stories of BIPOC or individuals from marginalized populations whose lived experiences are different from their own.

Ultimately, engaging in ethical/equitable storytelling is about turning the storytelling process into a partnership rather than a simple exchange of information. It is about shifting our thinking so that we hold paramount the best interests and wishes of the individual involved, and it requires us to approach every project as a unique scenario. Simply put, as communicators, we must remember that the words and experiences we are using are not our own, and that means the stories we share are not either.

Sandra Boone is a Communications Specialist for the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance working primarily with International Student and Scholar Services and the Immigration Response Team. These recommendations are based on her Strategic Communication MA Capstone research. Sandra can be reached at boon0033@umn.edu if you have questions about ethical storytelling or equity concerns for communicators.

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