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Travel Writing Ethics From Trauma Journalism

by Richard Stupart Jul 31, 2011
The Mac McClelland article on PTSD should force a look at the ethics of travel writing.

A couple of months back, Mac McClelland’s provocatively-titled personal account of the effects of PTSD after working in Haiti started a storm of debate around issues of journalistic ethics.

In her article, Mac shared the story of a Haitian rape victim (though her name was changed) without her consent. To further compound the issue, it later emerged that the victim had in fact explicitly requested Mac not to use her story. While the ethics of telling the details of a victim’s story when they have explicitly withdrawn consent are pretty straightforward, the debate gradually morphed into larger considerations of consent more generally.

Frankly, when telling the stories of individuals that travelers meet – particularly when those individuals may be poor, disempowered or traumatized – the dynamic between travel writer and subject is not that much different.

In many situations, it might be questionable whether the individual who shares their stories with a journalist/writer is willingly consenting to have those stories published. Even when consent is explicitly given, do those giving it fully appreciate what they are consenting to? And is it not fundamental that they should?

Freelance journalist Jina Moore, writing in review of the McClelland saga, argues compellingly that ethical storytelling on the part of journalists should keep four basic rules in mind at all times:

Consent must come from the owner of the story. Not the husband, a tour guide, a translator or anyone else. This will require you to explain to the person who you are and why you want to tell their story. It can be difficult, but it’s absolutely essential for the owner of the story to understand what it is you want to do, and to give you their response directly.

Consent must be given for a specific use. Simply asking whether, “I can tell your story” is too vague. There is a world of difference between revealing the details of someone’s life in subsequent casual conversations, blogging it, or putting it out as a long format article on Matador. Without knowing what the scale and nature of “telling their story” means, it is impossible for them to meaningfully consent.

Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate time Asking a trauma victim for consent right after the traumatic event is dishonest, as they are in no position to give a rational, considered answer. Equally, if you are a traveler, asking your Cambodian tourguide if you can write about his childhood memories of the genocide while you are still employing him should clearly constitute a compromised request for consent. Agreement to having your personal history shared with the world is not something that can be given when an imbalance of power exists.

Meaningful consent repeats itself. The more personal and difficult the story being told, the more important it is that the writer be able to have a relationship with the person whose story is being shared in which they can check facts, and ensure that the person concerned understands the angle the story is taking, and the manner in which they are being represented. Given that someone is sharing an intimate history, the writer should be obligated to treat that sharing with respect and be prepared to approach the storytelling process as a co-creative one.

This ethical position was initially written with the McClelland debate and the ethics of trauma journalism in mind, but what characterizes the need for such ethical considerations is the fact that, in Jina’s words:

Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift – one that favors the journalists.

Frankly, when telling the stories of individuals that travelers meet – particularly when those individuals may be poor, disempowered or traumatized – the dynamic between travel writer and subject is not that much different.

When a local taxi driver with whom you have a rapport tells you about childhood under a dictatorship, a Ugandan friend shares stories about life under Idi Amin, or you hear personal accounts of suffering under the Khmer Rouge on your next stint in Thailand, these rules surely apply. You are in a position of privilege as the listener, and are thus obligated by the ethics of consent if you want to share these stories.

If this reasoning is correct though, it feels a little as if there has been a deafening silence on this issue in the travel writing community. With some notable exceptions, travel writers would seem to be more concerned with how to write a compelling story than about the ethics of the storytelling process.

Insofar as travel is a process of sharing ourselves with those we meet, and travel writing is about putting some of that intimacy out into the world, we could all perhaps take a lesson from the journalism of trauma.

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