documentaries, Frankenstein, Marketing, Ownership of stories, Splice the Movie

Why ethics approval really matters – even in storytelling

As a storyteller who works across fiction, communications, journalism,  and marketing, I am interested in whether the participants of the new Australian documentary television series Struggle Street really understood what it means to give consent to their story being ‘sold’ by the media – not just ‘told’ by journalists.

Now that Struggle Street has aired in all its three part ‘poverty porn’ glory, the ratings are in. The series was a winner, but in nabbing such a large audience, who were largely tuned in for a voyeuristic peek into the underclass of the ‘Lucky Country’, it has caused the media to ponder issues of consent in the documentary genre.

The controversial documentary series first aired on Australian television station SBS on 3 May and was the focus of outrage even before it was first screened. Objectors launched a petition for SBS to suspend the broadcast.

Unlike those in the media, who need to use a standard consent form before entering the lives and minds of their subject and then broadcasting that around the country – doctoral students must go through a lengthy process to get ethics approval when using real people.

It is clear that Struggle Street’s phenomenal ratings appeal is the door being kicked open to a new and brutal form of storytelling and marketing when it comes to people’s lives. And one that should force all of us involved in any aspect of the media to pause and question exactly what informed consent really means when we ask people to expose themselves to public scrutiny.

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I did my PhD in Creative Writing so my subject matter – fictional scientifically created human hybrids – didn’t actually exist, so I didn’t need to get ethics approval to research them.

On the flip side, I was writing about fictional scientists in works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and director and screenwriter Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, which explores the fall out caused by people who really should have sought ethics approval before embarking on their projects.

Imagine trying to hand in a documentary like Struggle Street for your creative project without human ethics approval. In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer, Judy Redman writes “I’ve been told by a significant number of experienced researchers that completing the ethics application form helps them to clarify exactly what it is that they hope to find out.”

That’s not a bad thing, surely.

Saliently, Redman answers this following question in her article, which is at the heart over the media’s concern about what happened to the participants of Struggle Street.

Why do I need to do an ethics application?

“We have responsibilities towards our research participants. People are giving up their time (and sometimes also putting themselves at risk) to enable you to do your research. We need to ensure they can give free and informed consent to their participation and ensure their safety, particularly vulnerable groups.”

However, this matter of consent and whether real informed consent about the editing and marketing of the Struggle Street story was given by the participants is at the heart of the controversy about the documentary.

A television series like Struggle Street is aimed at garnering large ratings. To do that, the show must be constructed for audience expectations – tastes that have been weaned on reality television and sensationalism.

In this genre the audience wants to see excess, be it the voyeuristic and aspirational appeal of ostentatious wealth or the suffering and struggle of the underclass.  Participants may willingly let the media into their lives, but remain ignorant of how their stories will be shaped in the editing suite and in the subsequent marketing campaigns.

Yes, Struggle Street was a highly successful documentary. It attracted a large number of viewers. But is it enough to win a ratings war? Media analysis has now rightly focused on the issue of consent – specifically whether it is enough to gain written consent from people who may have no idea what happens once the cameras stop.

I suggest that consent can only really be given when participants are fully informed of the final campaign that will be used to sell their story.

In the communications business the client understands their story will be used to sell the product. In this case, the telling and the selling of the story are entwined. The client sees the final product and has been briefed on the marketing campaign, and is a part of all different stages of the process. They see the rough cut, the edited version and have the right to veto the story and steer the tone of the marketing campaign.

This is not the case in journalism, where the documentary filmmaker asserts control, obtains consent to film, and then the subject hands over their life and good will, not understanding that this is simply one part of the process.

According to SBS Chief content officer Helen Kellie, quoted here in Mumbrella, the role of the program-maker was to “make sure we’re not showing the story the participants wish they could tell…We are telling the story as it unfolded through the six months of filming.”

Indeed, the curation of content is contingent on more than just the filming, or collection and compilation of the images. It is in the editing that a political slant can be made, that references, relationships and dialogue are brought into focus. It is in the final ‘package’ of the story that the participants may feel their lives and views have been distorted to conform to an over arching narrative that is not their own.

In a comprehensive look at the issue of consent and Struggle Street, Denis Muller in The Citizen (7 May) asked: “Has SBS done over the people of Mount Druitt?” pointing out that the editing and of the series raised “questions about betrayal of trust, fairness of portrayal and the effects of stereotyping. But consent, as a cornerstone of professional ethics, is fundamental.”

Journalist Michael Lallo (Sydney Morning Herald May 9) reviewed the first episode of Struggle Street  more kindly than most commentators, writing that the show didn’t mock or degrade its participants, who mostly were portrayed as doing the best they could in circumstances of poverty, and drug abuse, with dignity and resilience. For Lallo, Struggle Street offered “a complex and nuanced look at how some people fall through the cracks”.

Brian McNair, writing in The Conversation (7 May)  also added, “Struggle Street was not racist, nor was it anymore voyeuristic than any reality TV show of the last two decades”.

Yet later commentary, after the massive success of the three part documentary, raised more serious concerns about consent. Michael Bodey (The Australian 18 May) noted that “the ethical issue of consent will be tested more frequently in the future after the success of the three part series”.

I would also add consent for the marketing campaign should be obtained before anyone signs off on giving over their lives to a documentary. Because when it is all said and done, the ‘success’ of Struggle Street is not about whether it effectively tells a story about the inequalities of Australian society but whether that story sold, and how well it sold, and how it was sold.

When success is measured in ratings and marketing spin, then consent must be given on this basis, and the residents of Mount Druitt should have been briefed on the marketing campaign, and allowed final veto of the end product or offered a say in the reediting, just as with any stakeholders in a communications campaign.

So, before you complain about ethics committee approval, think about the controversy surrounding Struggle Street. And then, ask the following question – should the media take lessons from academics about consent and the need for ethics approval?

An Edited version of this blog post was published at:

Online Opinion

RMIT Blog Central

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