The Startup
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The Startup

Five Principles That Guide Our Brand Ethos in Storytelling

By John Streit, Managing Editor and Writer, Operation Smile

A man filming at an outdoor market in Ghana.
The outdoor market we were filming at was much like this one in Assin Prasu, Ghana.
Three men walk through a market with posters.
I applied lessons learned from my earlier experience in Ghana when I returned to develop a story on Clement Ofosuhemeng’s (center) grassroots patient recruitment campaign.

While editing or writing a story, I’m vigilant against perpetuating cultural or socioeconomic stereotypes that the nonprofit sector has fostered for decades.

I’m actively dismantling the power dynamic of the “savior” and the “saved” — one of the most egregious false narratives in the space — and being sure the focus is on our patients as the heroes of their stories. Operation Smile is merely a vessel on which one travels toward healing — a turning point on a self-determined path.

Two men filming two people being interviewed on camera.
Understanding my responsibilities as an ethical storyteller, to shine the spotlight on the true heroes of the story, is critical.

That’s why we’ve developed editorial standards that strikes through terms like “cleft patient” and replaces it with “a person who was born with a cleft lip.”

Weaving stories together with our common human threads not only honors who our patients and our families really are, it’s an effective way to create a more memorable and meaningful connection between donors and the people they’re helping.

A family in India smile at the camera.
Rahki and Milon care for their son Shyam the same way that I care for my daughter. It’s my job to convey their devotion and make an empathetic connection for our readers.

The reality is that without our patients’ and their families’ trust in us and their commitment to persevere through tremendous adversity, our work simply wouldn’t be possible.

By leaning in and listening to their stories, we’ve learned about the barriers that they’ve had to overcome, which in turn, has also helped us develop patient advocacy and recruitment campaigns to help more people get the care they deserve. It also allows us to create connections of genuine empathy between our audiences and the people we serve.

A boy with a purple balloon sits on his father’s lap while he’s being interviewed by a woman.
Here my colleague Assistant Production Manager Alison Smyth interviews Jhone Leandro and his father in Brazil. She’s following up with the family to see how their lives have been impacted after receiving surgery.
A mother puts her daughter to bed while a videographer captures the moment.
A behind the scenes look at the filming of Mariana and Ramata’s story in their home in Ghana.

But the true test of an ethical story is if the people it’s about are proud of it when they read or see it.

If there’s any seed of doubt in your mind throughout the editorial process to the contrary, then the story probably needs better framing and more work to be done.

Three people sit on a bench looking at a flip book of photos.
Before her surgery, Faustina and her family look at photos of our patients who have received surgery.
Headshot of Operation Smile Managing Editor and Writer John Streit

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Operation Smile

Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most. operationsmile.org