When the people we serve share their stories, we know they’re entrusting us with something sacred. It’s an act of radical vulnerability and trust. That’s why, at Medical Teams, we continually evolve our practice of ethical storytelling.

Today, we’re taking you “behind the curtain” at Medical Teams to show you how we live out our calling in ways you might not otherwise see. Though you’ve likely read a story or watched a video that’s been created with ethical storytelling practices in mind, you might not have known it!

Read on to find out more about ethical storytelling and how we put it into practice.

What is ethical storytelling?

Ethical storytelling isn’t just one thing. In fact, it’s a set of practices. When we talk about ethical storytelling, we’re talking about a process that prioritizes consent, considers power dynamics, and seeks to break down stereotypes. It’s a way of telling stories through photos, videos, and written content that honors the dignity of the people whose stories are being shared. In fact, alongside our partners in the Integral Alliance, we committed to ethical storytelling practices that help shape our content.

For humanitarian organizations like ours, it keeps us focused on the human beings in our work. It’s easy to focus on what gets the biggest reaction from an audience. For example, we’ve all seen photos of children with flies around their eyes or read a story about “starving, desperate people.” It’s hard not to be affected by those kinds of images and stories.

But those pictures and stories also don’t represent a person’s full humanity. It robs people of their dignity, when the reality is that the people we serve alongside are strong, smart, and talented.

So when we practice ethical storytelling, we’re doing things like:

  • Being very clear about when and where photos and stories will be used so people can give informed consent
  • When possible, we send story subjects their finished photos, videos, and stories
  • We take photos and videos from an ethical lens, making sure to not take a photo that might embarrass someone or reinforce a damaging stereotype
  • We use asset-framing rather than deficit-framing to tell our stories

Recently, we formalized our ethical storytelling practice for written content at Medical Teams as Storytelling Principles.

Our Storytelling Principles

A woman on a low bench smiles at the camera
Evas, a mother of triplets, smiles in a photo that’s a great example of ethical storytelling principles.

Our Storytelling Principles come out of our belief that all people are made in the image of God. When we write about anyone, we remember that they are a person with their own full humanity. Choosing our words carefully — and constructing our stories with purpose — honors them and their experience. This is one small way we respond to our calling to love like Jesus.

We created the principles through workshops with content creators, expert input from our Diversity Advisory Council and technical teams, and input from a variety of storytelling resources. They also put into words what we’ve done informally for years.

Telling more ethical stories

Our Storytelling Principles help us tell our stories with more integrity and respect.

1. Focus on a person’s aspirations and agency before we do their need.

This means we present our story subjects by their strengths first. This is also known as asset-framing. Additionally, this principle reminds us to take a people-first approach. We also use first person quotes so our narrators can tell their own stories.

2. Frame our work as alongside the people we serve, not above and for them.

Our language should reflect that people have their own agency, power, and skill. People in the communities we serve alongside are eager to help their neighbors. They are often under-resourced, but not helpless.

3. Use language to blame systems rather than people for the situations they’re in.

It’s important to recognize that often people are in vulnerable positions because systems of oppression and inequity are at work in their lives. We abide by humanitarian principles, but don’t shy away from the reasons people might be suffering.

4. Avoid labels and single-word identifiers that don’t express a person’s full humanity.

Sometimes words like “Refugee” or “vulnerable” get repeated so often they become background noise. It’s easy to forget we’re talking about a person like you or me. They can also be reductive and inaccurate.

5. Close the “relatability gap” for our audiences by focusing on familiar core aspirations.

Even if people don’t know what it’s like to go into early labor far away from a health care clinic, they will know the feeling of being nervous about a medical treatment. One way we tell our stories with empathy is by not “othering” the experiences of people in other countries.

Why practice ethical storytelling?

Two siblings play outside of Uganda
Two Ugandan siblings play outside of a nutrition clinic in Uganda.

Ethical storytelling is one small way we provide loving care to all people. Caring doesn’t stop at a clinic. Just as our providers take the time to heal a patient with dignifying health care, we take the time to honor their dignity when telling their story too.

Additionally, ethical storytelling is an important way we break down stereotypes that might hurt the people we serve.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story,

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

We know that God sees and loves all our stories. Finding ways to tell stories that honor the full humanity of the people we serve — in both their joy and pain — is part of our calling.

Learn more about How We Heal.

photo of Lauren Hobson


Lauren Hobson
Copywriter & Editor