Five Principles That Guide Our Brand Ethos in Storytelling
By John Streit, Managing Editor and Writer, Operation Smile
In that moment, I was surprised — but I shouldn’t have been.
“Why would this man be so angry with me?” I wondered, dumbfounded and naïve.
He was one of the merchants at a large public bead market in Koforidua, Ghana, where our crew set out to capture footage that would be used in a story about the work of our Ghanaian volunteers. The scene was vibrant and bustling, layered with the colors of beads hanging from long strings — the kind of photogenic backdrop that videographers are naturally drawn toward.
Emphatic and animated, he demanded that we stop filming immediately.
Of course, we had no intention of upsetting anyone. In our minds, the objective of the story — raising awareness of Operation Smile’s work in Ghana to help sustain it — made our intentions bulletproof.
As it turns out, we were wrong.
Though I explained those intentions to him, it did little to quell the man’s outrage.
He told us that we were there to profit off of their images, and that we didn’t ask for his or his colleague’s consent before filming.
In an instant, my surprise transformed into realization.
Throughout my career as a journalist and nonprofit storyteller, I’ve strived to be a good steward of ethical practices. But this encounter was indelible and illuminating; clearly, there is always room for growth and improvement.
It’s through experiences like this, along with many hours of honest conversations with colleagues and our patients and their families, that I’ve adopted five principles that guide my approach to telling ethical stories.
Challenge Your Assumptions
In the bead market, I assumed that the merchants wouldn’t mind our team filming their work. I assumed and that the nature of our work absolved us from being perceived in a negative light.
Had I challenged those assumptions before we began shooting, it’s likely we wouldn’t have raised the ire of that merchant. Fortunately, we were able to reach an understanding with him and the other people we captured on film that day.
If we took the time and effort on the front end to approach each person who would be in frame, we could have sown seeds of good will rather than ill. I learned that it’s not only important for the people you’re including in the story, however peripherally, that they to understand of your intentions and give you expressed permission, it’s also the right thing to do.
The next time that I encountered a similar situation, again, in Ghana, we were producing a story about patient coordinator Clement Ofosuhemeng and his grassroots patient recruitment campaigns.
Before filming him and his team posting awareness-building flyers in a crowded public market, we made sure that the merchants knew exactly what we were doing and why. The shoot went smoothly, and our team was able to capture footage that told the story of Clement’s dedication to our patients.
But this principle goes far beyond obtaining informed consent: It’s also tied to assumptions and biases one can make that, when left unchecked, can infiltrate stories with even the best intentions at heart.
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.
Context is Critical
In storytelling, understanding the context of the moment is critical. Again, tied back to the bead market story, had we learned more about the cultural dynamic that contributed to our actions being viewed as exploitative, that would have informed our actions and triggered the gaining of informed consent.
Of course, you can’t always anticipate when you’ll commit a cultural faux pas, but you can be better prepared for how to react when you do. Prior to this experience and certainly after, I delve into understanding as much as I can about the people, their culture, national and regional histories, socioeconomic factors, the role of nonprofits in the country, and the history of their health systems so I can better anticipate what I may experience while gathering stories.
I bring the same approach to writing and editing in the post-production stage. As storytellers today, the amount of information that’s available at our fingertips only increases the level of responsibility to be prepared for the context into which you’re stepping.
Weave With Common Threads
I believe deeply that, regardless of our respective and unique backgrounds, that humanity possesses the potential to unite. But all too often, nonprofits can contribute to “us” and “them” sociocultural constructs that fall short of creating understanding and evoking a meaningful emotional connection.
By labeling the people that you’re helping as poor, unfortunate, needy and so on, one creates division that erodes at their dignity. By defining a person through what brings them the most suffering in life, one isn’t recognizing our common humanity.
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.
We met a lovely family in India whose youngest child, Shyam, was born with a cleft lip. Like many of the families we serve, they generate a low income and were unable to afford surgery for their son. Shyam’s mom and dad, Rahki and Milon, welcomed our team into their community and home with warmth and grace. They were kind enough not only to share their story with us, but also tea and sweets when our interviews wrapped for the day.
In Rahki and Milon, I witnessed deeply devoted and loving parents who are providing the best lives that they can for their kids. That’s something that many of our donors and supporters can relate to, thus bridging the gap that would have been created by arbitrarily labeling them with a term rooted in socioeconomic bias.
Empathy, Not Pity
This principle goes hand-in-hand with the idea of illuminating the human connections that we all share. When one casts another as an object of pity who’s been mired in despair until a hero swoops in to save the day, it disregards the self-agency of the person and exploits the power dynamic between the nonprofit and the person it’s helping.
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.
We also must be conscious of the moments in which we meet many families. Regardless of one’s background, income level or any other real or perceived human difference, there is inherent anxiety and fear of the unknown when you or a loved one is about to receive a surgery.
For parents with babies and young children, those feelings are amplified. We’re with them through an intense experience with a myriad of dynamics at play, so it’s our responsibility to make sure that we aren’t exploiting their emotions.
So when we arrive on the other side of that adversity — the other side of their brave and heroic surgical journey — having established a very real emotional connection between our hero and the reader, a genuine sense of joy is shared, and that lends greater significance to our work. A perfect example of this is the story of Mariana and Ramata’s journey to surgery. I challenge you to watch their story with dry eyes.
Trust but Verify
I saved this one for last, as it’s the definitive check to ensure that stories are up to the highest ethical standards. From a tactical standpoint, it’s important for any ethical storyteller to check the facts of their story with a journalist’s precision. If a factual is statement is made by a story subject, do the diligence of finding another source of information to verify it.
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.
We make every effort to share our completed stories with our patients and their families. When we met Faustina in Ghana one year after her cleft lip surgery, our team was anxious for her to watch the video that we had produced on her story.
I wasn’t surprised when her face lit up and she enthusiastically approved of it when it ended, but it verified that our team had hit the mark.
Ethical storytelling is a craft that requires constant dedication and practice. As I learned in the Koforidua bead market that day, the pursuit of ethical stories will be riddled with mistakes and missteps. If those shortcomings are approached from a position of humility and learning, we will continue to find better and new ways of bringing people closer together.
As the Managing Editor and Writer for Operation Smile, John Streit helps to shape the organization’s brand expression to support its mission and fuel fundraising for its programs.