Ethics, challenges and benefits of helping people tell their stories

ethics

Giving people an online platform to tell their stories of living life on a low income can be powerful and life-changing advocacy, but also carries many challenges and ethical responsibilities, as Pauline Marsh tells.

The Bottom Line Blog (BLB) is an online site where people who live on low incomes tell stories about their lives and experiences. Although the blog is managed by the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS) the stories are mostly unmediated and unedited. TasCOSS’ intention is to provide a platform from which people can talk about their lives in any way they would like.

The BLB entries, gathered since its inception in May this year, already cover a spectrum of life experiences and circumstances. They also offer a variety of strategies for dealing with difficult situations.

For example: In a short video Deb Honey talks about the huge benefits of starting in a volunteer position at the age of 47 – her first time working in an environment where she felt valued and important; a grandmother writes about taking on the care of her grandchildren and the social, emotional and financial costs of negotiating her way through the child protection and family court systems; De describes the impacts of an inadequate community health system, as well as how she stretches the Disability Support Pension by budgeting and being handy; and an anoymous blogger describes how poverty can be soul destroying.

Many of the blogs are gut-wrenching tales of disadvantage and struggle; but in equal measure they contain examples of strength, support and hope.

There were several motivations for TasCOSS to set up this blog site, and a range of challenges involved in launching and maintaining it. There are also several moral and ethical issues involved, with which we sometimes continue to struggle. However there are also a range of potential benefits of entering the fascinating, challenging and quite possibly for some, life-changing, world of online storytelling.

The aims of the Bottom Line Blog

The idea for the BLB grew partly out of a need to respond to the harsh measures proposed in the 2014-15 Federal Budget. At the time TasCOSS felt compelled to dispel some of the myths about ‘rorters’ and ‘leaners’ that appeared to be influencing some of the budget initiatives. We hoped that by giving access to stories that gave insight into the undesirable and detrimental impacts of disadvantage, we might provide a fuller and clearer picture of the nature and effects of poverty, particularly for those who live in comfort and security.

The second aim was to improve the reach and impact of TasCOSS’ advocacy work. TasCOSS aims to “speak up for the interests of low-income and otherwise disadvantaged Tasmanians”, to create a fair and just Tasmania. However, we have traditionally operated at arms-length from those very people we seek to represent. Instead we rely on feedback from our member community sector organisations who work ‘on-the-ground’. Whilst this is a legitimate model for a member-based peak body, it means sometimes there are multiple levels of mediation between personal experiences and our organisation – for example, staff report to managers who report to CEOs who report to peaks who attend TasCOSS consultations and report to us. Moreover, that information has been primarily used in advocacy work that reaches a limited audience – chiefly we include real-life stories in documents such as written submissions to government-led consultations, or we pass it on to various committees and groups we are part of. And whilst we regularly add our voice to public debate in various media outlets, it is often in the form of short statements and grabs, and less so in ways that can articulate the complexities of life on a low income.

Blogging enables TasCOSS to achieve both aims, of dispelling myths about people facing disadvantage, and to improve our advocacy. The BLB platform is a contemporary and effective advocacy tool: a simple means for amplifying the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard.

Interestingly, as the blogs began to come in, we soon discovered that Tasmanians were keen to contribute for other reasons also. While some people definitely wanted the chance to take their story to politicians and to people who might bring about change, others wanted to blog because they hoped it would help people get through difficult times. In effect, the blog has become a digital form of support and of community development.

How it works

During the planning stage we took the time to write guidelines for recruiting and informing bloggers and for maintaining the site. We talked to consumer advocates about protection issues, tested the idea with a couple of member organisations (who raised concerns we had not thought of) and to help understand issues of copyright and ownership we consulted the excellent guide Blog, Podcast, Vodcast and Wiki Copyright Guide for Australia. [i]

To get started we set up a site using a free WordPress template, upgrading to the ‘premium’ option to access a wider range of aesthetic options. Before making the site live we sought three willing bloggers through TasCOSS networks, two of whom wrote anonymous blogs and the third who agreed to be videoed. Although storytelling sites and blogging are relatively well-established in the online space, for many people they are still unknown, so we wanted our audience to have a sense of the scope and possibility of the BLB from the outset. Even in this digital age, the number of people who do not access the internet is more common than we had perhaps expected – young and old.

From the start we took care to ensure every blogger clearly understood the very public nature of the online space. We continue to make contact by phone or face-to-face with each person who expresses interest, and check that they understand three important things before we post their story:

  • Their story will be placed online to be seen and heard by the public.
  • With a written story people can be anonymous, but even then there is still a risk that you might be identified.
  • People may reproduce your story in other places. However, once it is on the BLB it cannot be reproduced by anyone unless they acknowledge that is where they found it. As its creator, it’s your story. As a blog, its home is the TasCOSS Bottom Line Blog.

We decided against using written consent forms (essentially for simplicity) and instead direct people to the above information on the site, and then make sure it is clearly understood. When people are fully aware of what they are getting in to, handing over the story becomes the act of consent. However, we have made an exception for contributors under 18 years old, where a consent form is provided for parents. We also provide hardcopies of this information to potential bloggers who are not internet users.

Once the guidelines were established and the blog site made live, we worked at generating interest. We linked the blog to its own Facebook page, and to our TasCOSS Facebook and Twitter accounts. We also used old-school techniques and visited numerous service providers to talk about the site. We began establishing partnerships with organisations who were already using storytelling in their literacy work, for example the LINC and neighbourhood houses. We distributed flyers all around the state, and one enthusiastic blogger most helpfully distributed flyers at places she frequented: food vans, libraries, and various service providers. We helped bloggers to record their stories – through both writing and filming. One day, at their invitation, we sat in at the Benevolent Society collecting blogs. As people came in to ask for emergency relief they were offered the opportunity to come and talk about whey they were there, and have their story added to the Blog. Their blogs are short, but incredibly revealing.

The BLB averages about 350 views per month, and the reach of the Facebook page is wider, oscillating between 50 to 1300 views for each entry. The blog has been viewed by people world wide – including Turkey, Germany, India and the Philippines. The overwhelming majority are in Australia, and some members of Parliament are regularly taking a look. The ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on the Facebook page are close to home, most often fellow Tasmanians who are associated with the community sector.

Nevertheless, while there has been much enthusiasm and encouragement for the idea of the BLB, this has not translated into a bombardment of entries from bloggers. After five months of spreading the word we now have a steady, slow input of blogs and even a small store of stories in the ‘blog bank’. However, there is some resistance and hesitation to blog, or to promote the blog to clients of services, and I would argue these are based on legitimate concerns.

The ethics of inviting ‘vulnerable’ people into an online space

The decision to publish and promote personal stories by people who live in difficult circumstances was not taken lightly, and required negotiating some considerable ethical concerns. Would we be exposing vulnerable people to unwelcome and potentially harmful scrutiny and criticism? Would we be unintentionally facilitating voyeuristic pleasure sometimes gained from other’s misery? Would we be adding to the current plethora of ineffective “moving narratives” (which Helen Razor recently criticised strongly)? Can storytelling really address the structural barriers to living a life of dignity and purpose?

Behind some of these concerns is the inescapable fact that Tasmania is a small place. Despite efforts to avoid naming locations and organisations, and to alter some of the finer details that might reveal a person’s identity, there is nonetheless a significant risk that any author will be identifiable. In some cases this carries great risks. What might be the consequences, for example, of identifying the anonymous blogger who writes about the appalling violence her family has endured at the hands of her son, whom she describes as a “monster”? A mental health support organisation declined the offer to participate because, as they explained, if people make the decision to contribute when they are unwell there is a risk that when they are well they may regret what they have revealed. Although stories can be removed from the blog at any time, the idea that something that has appeared once on the internet can always be retrieved and reproduced (through workings that are mysterious to most of us) is a genuine fear.

People living in disadvantage can indeed be vulnerable – vulnerable to exploitation, judgement and criticism that may have disastrous consequences. To mitigate potential harms we have links to Lifeline and Advocacy Tasmania permanently on the sidebar, and add warnings before stories if they are particularly confronting, as well as additional links to help underneath. We restrict comments from being automatically loaded to the page, and instead they are directed via email to TasCOSS staff. So far comments have been rare, and to date we have not chosen to post those we have received.

However, as the BLB clearly shows, people experiencing financial and social disadvantage can also be strong, resilient, determined, angry, loving, kind and generous. Far from fragile. If we deny people the chance to tell their stories on an assumption of ‘vulnerability’ we are complicit in their silencing. Alternatively, we can make the most of the opportunities that the online storytelling space offers and, quite possibly, help to create a more fair and just society.

 

[i] A C Austin, J M Coates, H Donnelly, and B Fitzgerald, Blog, podcast, vodcast and Wiki copyright guide for Australia, (Unpublished), 2009.

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