3 Tips to Avoid Stereotypes in Ethical Storytelling

One of our biggest challenges when writing about culture is avoiding stereotyping that culture. Sometimes our stories sound like stereotypes because we have failed to ask one important question of what we have written:

“How do I know what I just wrote is true?”

Dani Robbins, a nonprofit strategist, provided a great example of this failure in an article she wrote, “Are Your Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve?”

In it, she shared:

“I received a letter recently from an organization saying that the children they serve ‘have no role models in the house.’ Does that honor the dignity of their families? Is it even true? It doesn’t, and it’s not.”

The writer of that story could have avoided this failure if they had asked themselves one important question about what they wrote:

“How do I know that?”

If you write, “The children we serve have no role models at home,” ask yourself, “How do I know that?” What are you basing this claim on?

Here are three tips to help you avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalizations in stories and to show, at each step, how you know what you have written is true.

1. Reveal your evidence.

Share how you know what you know with as much specificity as is ethically (and legally) possible.

If you want to write, “The children we serve have no role models at home,” because you actually heard a child say that, then be specific and don’t project that child’s experience onto others.

You could write: “One of the children in our program, Patricia, told us she has no role models in her household.” Who can argue with Patricia about her own life, especially if neither she nor the organization are saying her experience is the same as everyone else’s in the program?

If you didn’t hear this from one child but instead from many over time, you could write, “Many of the children in our program tell us they have no role models at home.”

Or, instead of framing this around a particular participant or participants, you could speak your own truth from your own experience: “When I visited our center, I met children who told me they had no role models at home.”

Revealing your evidence and being specific will ensure your statements do not feed into stereotypes.

2. Share stories that showcase diversity and complexity

Look for examples that push against the expected and the assumed.

Continuing the example that began in Robbins’s article, does your program work with a child who does have role models at home and needs your help?

Or, if all the adults who are not considered role models share common qualities or backgrounds, can you tell stories of people with those same qualities or backgrounds who are role models?

What about doing an interview with someone considered to be not a role model, to hear their side of the story?

Ask yourself: “Who are the people most at risk of being stigmatized or stereotyped as a result of this story—and what else can we share to combat that?”

3. Balance personal testimony with research about prevalence

Believe what people say about their own lives and use direct quotes as much as possible…and also research the bigger situation. Is Patricia’s experience of having no role models in her house unique to her circumstance or representative of a broader issue that your program participants face? Do your research to confirm what is and isn’t representative. You’re not trying to prove or disprove what Patricia told you; you’re trying to understand, and then communicate to your donors, how what she told you about her life fits into the bigger picture. You can cite statistics from external studies about a particular population or from data you collect as part of your program monitoring and evaluation.

You need to be honest with the donors reading your stories and help them understand how reflective any one individual’s story is about the larger population.