Why we should be telling the bad stories

Last night, when I popped to my corner shop to grab a pint of milk, I wasn’t expecting to come home pondering one of the age-old problems charity comms people face; should we be telling bad stories?

My corner shop is run by a Sri Lankan family. I knew that and as I watched Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields on Tuesday evening I did wonder whether they were watching it and what they thought. For some reason I naively assumed it would be offending them or that they would be angry.

I think this was born out of the frequent conversations we have in the charity sector about the rights and wrongs of telling bad stories. Naturally, and rightly, we are concerned about how we depict our beneficiaries and service users. In trying to protect them we often only tell the positive stories of change. This is particularly true of the development sector where there can be criticisms about perpetuating stereotypes or telling a one dimensional story of countries and continents.

But as I was queuing to pay for my milk I noticed a poster advertising Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields pinned above the counter. So I asked Ugarajan what he thought of the programme. He was clearly affected by it; he told me that what Channel 4 showed was just a fraction of the atrocities that have been committed and he told me his sister and niece had been killed in some of the ways we saw. But he was very grateful the programme had been broadcast; he thinks more people need to know the truth.

There is merit in telling bad stories if it is done sensitively, with integrity and by working with those affected. There is a big difference between sensationalising suffering for the sake of fundraising targets or press coverage and raising awareness of injustices that must be addressed.

Charities will always need to tell the positive stories of change – it demonstrates the impact we are having. But we must also become more confident about and willing to tell the bad stories.

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