Ethical principles of life writing
Why do you need to think about this?
Across our lives, no matter where we live or what we do, we are guided by ethics that help us make decisions about how we ought to behave. Sometimes ethics are straightforward. For example, from an early age, we learn that to physically harm others or destroy their property is wrong in the eyes of the law and the community.
Other ethical issues are not so clear. For example, one person might be outraged by the use of solitary confinement in prison, believing it is a form of torture, while someone else thinks it’s necessary to keep order and modify prisoner behaviour. In some communities and nations, there are fierce and sometimes violent actions carried out because individuals or groups cannot agree on the ethics surrounding the termination of pregnancies. These are just two ethical issues that illustrate how our beliefs and values inform our behaviour.
So, what’s this got to do with you writing a life story?
- There are some laws you must follow that are designed to protect individuals’ privacy, reputation and wellbeing.
- Sensitive issues are often raised in life stories and this means that your actions and behaviour will be guided by your understanding of ethics.
- The Australian Curriculum states that you must be given opportunities to learn about commonly held ethical positions (sometimes these are laws), and that you should also have opportunities to consider and practise ethical decision-making and actions at school. This is a good unit for doing just that because there may be a risk that what you include and share about someone else’s life will have unexpected and negative impacts on them.
Some things are straightforward, others are not. Facebook is a good example of an arena where ethics come into play. Here are some examples for you to consider: ethical or unethical? legal or illegal?
- A ‘troll’ has located a memorial page for a young woman who died in a car accident. This person posts abusive and inaccurate statements that distress the woman’s family and friends.
- A son blocks his parents from accessing his page because they are stalking him.
- Someone posts and tags a photo of you that you did not know was taken and it leads to great embarrassment and your parents grounding you.
- A member of the public posts inaccurate information about a suspect on a Facebook page dedicated to locating a missing person.
Anyone who shares their life experiences with you deserves your respect. This means that you must understand that they have the final decision about what is and is not to be included. Mostly, this won’t be a problem and these principles are provided not only to protect your subject, but also to protect you from any unintended problems.
So, here are three things that you must do for the purposes of the life story you write:
- Complete and lodge a consent form before you interview the person and use any photos, videos or other material they might provide, or things you might want to add to the life story (for example, images downloaded from the internet).
- Respect copyright, so if you download anyone else’s photos or music it must be via Creative Commons. You must also supply the URL for reference.
- Show your completed life story to your subject and get their final consent before sharing it at the ‘Life story showcase’ at the completion of this unit. You will generally find that the subject will be very happy to have their story shared – after all that’s why they accepted the invitation! However, remember that it is their story and their right to ask for changes.
If you are ever uncertain, then the best thing to do is check with your teacher.
Here are some questions to help you resolve ethical dilemmas:
- Will anyone be hurt, offended or misrepresented by this?
- Have I have recorded this accurately and, if I’m not sure, have I checked it out with the subject or someone/somewhere else?
- Does my story respect the subject’s privacy?
- Have I handled sensitive issues appropriately, and checked these out with someone else?
Finally, two questions that will be really useful:
- Will my subject be proud of this and be happy to share it with friends and family?
- If I were the subject, would I feel that the story understood and respected my life experience and my person?