The Ethics of Storytelling

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction

Transcript: http://podcast.thisamericanlife.org/special/TAL_460_Retraction_Transcript.pdf

This episode of the radio show This American Life, called “Retraction” is about the discovery and fallout when a famous storyteller Mike Daisey apparently fabricated parts of his one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” excerpts of which were played on TAL earlier that year (2012), called “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” (transcript: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/transcript) In that story, Mike Daisey tells what he saw and the people he talked to in Shenzhen, a city in China where most of the electronics we use in the US are made. In order to get inside the factories, he says, he posed as an American businessman interested in contracting out to one of the factories. He tells about working and living conditions for the people making Apple products and other electronics, which are mostly produced by a corporation called FoxCon. A few months after the story aired, however, a journalist went about fact-checking his stories, and found that many of the people he says he talked to he never even met. What are the special responsibilities of a storyteller when the stories he is telling are not necessarily his own (they belong to the workers in the factories)? In his apparent advocacy for the worker’s rights by making their abuse public and in fact famous, how has the whole debacle actually been detrimental to the process of raising awareness and instituting change? How did he wrestle with the opposing responsibilities to the “facts” and to the “truth” of the narrative?

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3 Responses to The Ethics of Storytelling

  1. Hamlet says:

    This resource was posted by Hamlet!

  2. Hannah Barg says:

    I think that the This American Life episode “Retraction” poses many interesting questions about the authenticity of stories and the need for a “true” story. It also really demonstrates the consequences of when theater, journalism, and storytelling become confused for one another. In “Retraction,” Daisey confesses that his work was actually one of theater, and not journalism. He believes that even when he changes the details, the message of the story is still “true,” because it still makes the audience care. This poses the question for storytelling of: do the details of a story need to be entirely factual? Is it okay to embellish? In my own opinion, I do not have a problem with embellishing the details of a story, especially because for storytellers, many actually believe their stories to be true (including myths, legends, etc.). The moment when embellishing and changing details of a story becomes wrong is when you do what Mike Diasey did, which is label is as your “own story.” Labeling a story as one’s own original story automatically demands a sense of authenticity and authority. I think that Ira explains the problem of Mike Daisey’s work when he says to him:

    “I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.”

    By saying “this happened to me,” but ultimately fabricating the details, can lead all audience members to feel deceived. Of the many goals of storytelling, deception is not one of them. Thus in labeling a story as one’s “own personal story” should not be taken lightly; the storyteller/actor/journalist should always consider the implications of what it means to tell a personal story, and not fabricate the facts or use someone else’s story, because depending on the context in which it is told, it can have very serious consequences.

  3. roshard13 says:

    Hamlet, Thank you for this post, which I think relates a great deal to an entry I posted on our “what are the ethics of storytelling?” Moodle blog for this week: https://moodle.hampshire.edu/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=18708. As Megan has mentioned I think that this article is a very important contribution to our conversation, because it illuminates the assumed contract of truthfulness and sincerity which is signed between the storyteller and audience. In both “The Ethics of Storytelling” (Mooney and Holt) and “Toward an Understanding of Storytelling Events” (Georges) we are reminded that even though storytelling is art form that is open to personal interpretation, reshaping, and public sharing their also a certain level of respect and care that must be upheld within this practice. As so perfectly described by Ira during his conversation with Mike Daisy, Storytelling requires a great deal of honesty on the part of the teller since the audience is usually agreeing to a silent contract, which ask them to respect and trust the teller. Storytelling is an art form that allows for true empathy and shared emotion, which can all be greatly harmed by a the fabrication of a story.

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