When I was the Communications Director at One Day’s Wages (ODW), we once posted a story on our Facebook page that featured a young boy who was HIV+. The story was given to us by one of our partner nonprofits and it included a photo of the boy smiling proudly with a caption about how ODW’s support was getting him the treatment he needed. About an hour later, one of our followers left a comment on the post that left me wondering if the story we had just shared was actually unethical.

One Day’s Wages provides matching grants to partners working on anti-poverty issues in low income countries. We work diligently to vet our partners and make sure they have the same ethical standards about sharing stories as we do. But because we don’t collect beneficiary stories ourselves, sometimes we run into challenges around the ethics of sharing these stories.

ODW has had to make some tough decisions about whether to share every story we receive from our partners. Here are a few of those situations and what we’ve learned along the way.

  1. When a photo or story is borderline disempowering

More than once we’ve had partners share stories with us that felt potentially disempowering to the people in the stories. One such instance happened when we were given a photo and story of a young girl collecting water from a pond. The girl was looking at the camera and frowning as she leaned over the dirty water. The story and photo made the girl’s situation feel a bit hopeless–as if she had no agency herself–and oversimplified a very complex issue.

We decided to use this as an opportunity to have a conversation with the partner about ethical storytelling. Their argument was that the photo represented a real need. A situation that indeed happened. But just because a story or photo demonstrates a real need doesn’t mean it’s okay to perpetuate stereotypical, belittling narratives about people in poverty. Do these kinds of pictures show someone’s reality? Sometimes in the moment, yes. But there is always more to these stories.

Along these same lines we once were given some photos for a new partnership that featured a rural community in West Africa. When we took a closer look at the photos we noticed one of the women tucked into the background was only wearing a bra and skirt. Though her lack of clothing was not immediately noticeable, we felt the photo was not appropriate to share.

When we mentioned this to our partner, they were extremely thankful we brought it to their attention because they had accidentally missed this detail and agreed the photo should not be shared.

  1. When we’re missing important details, or decide to change them

It would be great if every story from our work was inspiring and demonstrated transformation. But the reality is global development doesn’t work like that. The issues are complex, and so are the results.

We’re often given stories from the field that lack important details or inspirational elements. It’s easy to make the case for adding details to or altering a story to sound a certain way, or to skip over the challenging parts of a story all-together. But altering a story about a real person’s life runs the risk of hurting the individuals who the story is about (with the exception of changing names or details to protect privacy).

We need to think carefully about whether we are hiding significant parts of a story just to make it seem more inspiring. Even if the details of a story are heartbreaking, complicated and challenging, these are the details that make life beautiful, relatable, and compelling.

  1. When we’re unsure if deep consent was granted

It’s important that when we are collecting beneficiary stories to share with the public we need to get what is called deep consent. This term refers to making sure people understand their rights and the potential implications of sharing their story.

In the story about the boy with HiV mentioned earlier, we were confronted by the question of whether it was unethical to share his story. The comment it had received after being posted called into question how we could share something so personal, such as HIV status, about this very young and vulnerable child. It argued that because of the boys age and the fact that he was an orphan, he couldn’t possibly give deep consent. We wrestled with this argument all day, wondering if it was right.

ODW really trusts our partner organizations and the work they do, but because we were not the ones who collected the story about the boy, we didn’t know with absolute certainty that the child fully understood what he was consenting to.

Ultimately we decided to take the story and photo of the boy down. It was very likely that our partner thoroughly explained to the boy how the photo would be used and the implications of his HIV status being made public. But as an orphan, the child was in a very vulnerable position and might not have had the appropriate support to help him fully understand, and because of his age he may not have been capable of fully understanding. We decided we needed to get clarification from the partner about whether deep consent was granted.

Sometimes the line is clear when a story is unethical to share; other times it’s murky. For us, we’ve learned to default to not sharing something if there is any question about the ethics.

When we are sharing other people’s stories it’s easy to get caught up in WHY we’re sharing, and forget about the HOW. But when people trust us with very vulnerable details about their lives, it’s important to think carefully about both.

Secondhand Story Ethics

Melissa Pack is a Freelance Writer and Florist. As a Co-Curator at Ethical Storytelling, she writes for and edits the ES blog. Melissa has worked in the fields of Philanthropy, Global Development, and Human Services for the last 10 years. She’s worked with nonprofits such as One Day’s Wages, Village Volunteers, The Center for African Education, and Cocoon House. She’s a believer in the idea that humility and vulnerability are the storyteller’s greatest assets. To connect with Melissa you can find her on Facebook or Linkedin