Why Charities Must Put Ethics Above All Else When Commissioning Content
Words by Amber Henshaw, Planning & Commissioning Advisor
Charities have long been scorned for using stigmatizing images in their communications, often for fundraising purposes. Rightly so, as a society, we are moving beyond damaging stereotypes — stereotypes that are harmful and often perpetuate a narrative that does not elevate the people, culture, or country the charity serves.
Organizations must start realize the power imbalance between them and the people they use in the communications — who are often service users and, in some cases, minors.
At IPPF, we want not only the people we serve, but the people on the ground doing the work (who are part of the communities they serve), at the forefront of our storytelling. We want to tell their story using their own words with dignity and respect.
So when the UN’s newly appointed under secretary-general for global communications tweeted an image of a child refugee that displayed personal details, including their family name, location and family’s phone number, it caused huge controversy.
It raised issues about confidentiality, privacy, and safety of the girl and her family. Could the young girl (she only looked six or seven) really give informed consent? Did she know how the image was going to be used? It later transpired that the photo was also six years old, so who knew what had happened to the young girl in that time?
These are some of the questions that I consider every day when I am commissioning stories from around the world to show the amazing work of IPPF staff and volunteers, who are doing delivering healthcare to the world’s most vulnerable people in the hardest to reach locations.
Commissioning comes with many variables, from sourcing the right team to ensuring we have the people on the ground who will talk to us. A lot goes into the preparation of a commission but ultimately commissioning is about telling the human story behind what IPPF and its Member Associations do. As someone recently tweeted: “Stories have the strength to move and inspire — and change the world, one person, at a time.”
Real-life perspectives can spark support for our issues, can help us to explain abstract concepts, and help people to understand why they should care about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It’s important that we tell people’s stories honestly and openly, but it is also essential that we remember that these are real people with real lives. We have a duty of care to protect them when it comes to storytelling.
From my four years commissioning for IPPF, I’ve made a list of four things to consider when commissioning a trip:
It is our duty to ensure that the team we use and the people they interview are protected. We will never send content gatherers into a country or region where security is an issue. They are prepped beforehand and are looked after by our Member Association on the ground — from when they land to when they leave.
Crucially, we must safeguard the people whose stories we are telling. It is always important to engage the participant in the process, responding to their feelings and wishes with dignity and respect. We always make sure that they understand the process and have given their full consent to have their photograph taken and their story used. We never interview or photograph anyone under the age of 18, unless a parent or guardian gives permission.
We have written consent forms and a visual document that shows how and where their image may be used. One of the things that we need to communicate with our contributors is how long we will keep and use their image. It is vital that participants do not feel coerced and may withdraw their consent at any time, and be given details on how they would withdraw their consent should they wish to do so.
The content gathering team
We have built up a bank of trusted filmmakers, journalists and photographers based around the world that we use. If we are going to a country for the first time, we will always try to recruit freelancers in-country so we are not flying in people who don’t understand the context, issues and sensitivities around SRHR.
If we can’t find someone who we think is suitable then we look to the nearest country in the region. Parachuting people in from the UK is a reluctant last resort. Due to the sensitive nature and cultural boundaries in which we sometimes have to work, we prefer to use a female journalist where possible.
Is there a story to tell?
We work in over 170 countries — this may sound like an endless supply of human interest stories, but one of the challenges we have is sometimes finding the right story to tell. We work closely with the programmes team and keep our ears and eyes out for interesting programmes that could lead to a commission.
Preparation is key, we start to gather ground-level information on the programme and then with the Member Association. We then try to identify people who have been positively impacted by the work we do. We then work on the logistics, and off our team goes to try and accurately report on the programme. But you can do all the prep in the world, and the outcome will be very different from your expectations.
When stories come back to us we check that they meet our editorial and safeguarding standards, especially when it comes to consent. We rely heavily on the journalist to relay any information of people giving consent, flagging anything that would possibly contradict this. For us, it’s really important that every journalist we work with understands how important consent is beyond someone writing down their name on a consent form.
A good example of using our editorial discretion even though we had consent to use her story was of an interviewee who told us that she had a child after being raped by her brother who still lived in the same village. Neither the brother or the child knew that he was the father. We decided that the woman’s account could have damaging repercussions so we didn’t use the interview. These are lengths all organizations must go to, to ensure we respect the safety and dignity of those we interview, long after we leave.
Charities really must start to look beyond what has ‘worked’ for them in the past — especially for fundraising comms — and start looking at how we can start breaking down stereotypes and harmful narratives through the imagery we use.