The Ethics of Disclosure

Creative Non-Fiction is, by definition, rooted in reality, or at least “truth”. Because CNF writers are constantly working with reality, they are constantly faced with the ethical dilemma of disclosing the experiences of others. New journalists, especially struggle with these situations. For example, in New Orleans, a Harvard Law grad and former law clerk had her work removed from a journal because it disclosed sensitive or confidential information regarding a death penalty trial. They defense attorney sought a court order, preventing the author from publishing the story anywhere.

One writer, commenting on the case said, “Unfortunately, neither this news article or the essay itself are enough to judge whether she broke confidentiality agreements. It’s a good essay, but I did find myself wondering how she learned certain things. If it was from news articles and interviews the lawyers had done publicly, then she’s good. If not, then I’m not a fan of using privileged information as she did. A court case may be the only way to discover how exactly she learned what. Until then, this looks like a great case to teach, discussing how the essay makes us think and feel about such delicate legal issues.” – Nels

Another writer commented to the same effect, “Whatever the ultimate resolution of the situation, it illustrates the ethical/moral component of writing “creative” non-fiction. The mere fact that an essay is “beautifully-written” doesn’t overshadow how the content was obtained and developed.” – Bob Shea

However, this ethical question is not restricted to matters of law, national security, and areas where confidentiality is an explicit policy. The ethics of disclosure also applies to subject matter where the writer has absolutely no legal obligation not to write about it. For example, writing about traumatic events in someone else’s life, when they have not chosen to disclose those details, requires a conscious approach.

In a blog post called “The Danger of Disclosure”, Roxanne Gay writes the following:

“In 2010, an eleven-year-old girl was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas, a story I first heard about when acquaintances discussed the case on social media. Then the New York Times published an article about the assault—specifically, about how it had affected the town. Oh, how the article lamented for that poor, poor town and the young men whose lives had been irrevocably changed.

The language used in the article, the language used to refer to a vicious rape—the actual crime in question—was so careless. It was the first time I had ever felt so moved by a story and a complex set of social circumstances that I needed to write my way through it. I felt obligated to respond as a woman, as a writer, as a human being.”

It seems Roxanne Gay found the original report to be exploitative in their eagerness to politicize the rape and to carelessly put the narrative before the sensitivity of the information. In some instances, it may be sufficient to remove or change names and specific locations. But, if a story is big enough, one writer’s restraint does no good when another writer chooses to disclose the same event. Further, in compensating by removing names, we find a new problem, as we struggle for balance between “fact” and “truth” in an attempt to respect the sensitive nature of the story. Both of these instances really serve as a case study of the ethical dilemmas at the heart of this genre.




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