Writing non fiction articles or blog posts requires an author to draw on topics they know well, and often to share, to some extent, their personal lives or situations. Producing a good story while respecting privacy rights calls for clear ethical guidelines.
In this article I’m focusing more on opinion or experience pieces, as well as blog posts, though the same basic principles apply to such things as autobiographies and factual articles.
Does every writer need to think about ethics?
Basically, yes! You are probably used to see-ing the disclaimer on a novel’s copyright page, stating that the characters and situations portrayed in the book are all figments of the writer’s imagination. I would say that’s something most readers of fiction take for granted.
However, when someone chooses to read an article or blog post they expect something quite different. It’s precisely because the content is about real life observations or people that it is attractive. This creates a unique situation for non fiction writers. You are charged with balancing the need for interesting, attractive and perhaps controversial content, without creating problems for yourself or those around you.
What does ethical writing really mean?
In my experience the important thing is to be honest with yourself about the content. Consider the following:
- Is writing about this situation going to cause harm of any kind to the person or people featured? If you have a fabulous anecdote which you’d love to share, but doing so would cause someone to feel embarrassed, don’t do it. I once read a blog which described a hen night in great detail, with pictures to boot. I’m not sure the groom to be appreciated knowing all about the ‘kissing contest’ his fiancee had been set up for. The piece was well written and amusing, but thoughtless and plain stupid at the same time.
- Is this really my story to tell? In a similar vein as #1, I feel the young woman involved had a right to privacy. At the very least you should seek clear permission from those involved before attempting to write about any event you have doubts over. I think any kind of gossip or innuendo belongs in this section too. So you heard third hand that your neighbor won the lottery? Are you really going to write about that for the world to see? Whether the gossip is true or false, you can’t know the consequences of your spreading it, so be responsible. Instead let this inspire you to share your opinions on how you would spend a windfall.
- The ripple effect. So you blogged about how much you dread holidays because you’re forced into spending time with people you’d rather not be around? Oh dear. Now your parents and in laws are both mad because they must be the people you’re referring to, right? Oh and your sister is furious because it was only last month that she was your hostess. So she then cuts you off and refuses to attend a family wedding if you’ll be there. The one where your child was to be an attendant for the first time. Which your daughter then wrote about in her journal class: so now the teacher knows you’re a mean and ungrateful person! There are endless ripples caused by everything we choose to commit to print, so publish such tales at your own risk.
- How easily can the people or situation featured be identified? In the above example it’s quite easy for readers to make the connections between situations and real people. However, even veiled description and murky clues can be troublesome. Right now I am working on a long article, on a topic which is a little risque and which features a woman I know. She is of course a full and active participant in this project, and I would never publish anything which would actively identify her. But there are people who know this is in progress, so inevitably I need to edit the final product within the ethical guidelines I have outlined here.
Many people think sitting down and actually producing written work is the challenge. Only us writers know that there’s a whole lot more to consider. It’s a wonderful feeling when you’ve finished something and are able to publish it to print or the web. By writing within a strong and fair ethical framework this achievement is fully justified.