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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Academic Study, Brand Identity, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Marketing, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, publishing the novel, writing workshops

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

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Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

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I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

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Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.