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Ethical Language in Research – Against the Poverty Porn

*Updated version*

Cause marketing is most often put into use by corporate charities or philanthropic entities. They align with a cause that pulls at the public’s heartstrings, compelling a response; all the while providing a euphoric experience of ‘I’m helping”. These corporate charities and philanthropic entities rely on the emotional experience that comes with ‘helping’ to help them reach a bottom line. That may be financial, it may be professional or it may be social capital they are seeking. But what it also does is that it obfuscates the real issues and poverty reigns.

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The reporting and portrayal of both suicide and mental illness in the media has its own set of guidelines. So why not research?

Poverty has the power to repel us. Poverty can also have us feeling a little guilty. Fixing that poverty has the power to bring us in and give a sense of goodwill. It can also elicit a strong emotional response like helplessness and guilt. But we often overcome that guilt when we see some one else, or ourselves, fix it and ‘help’ communities in poverty or people facing impoverished circumstances.

Charities are most often the prescribers of relief to poverty affected areas and impoverished people. Benevolence costs quite a bit to offer and is know to be big business. So it needs to draw you in. Poverty porn describes this big business. Matthew Colin describes poverty porn ‘any type of media…which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.’ Poverty porn has a financial reward, and an emotional one.

Unbeknownst to many there is scurrilous cousin to poverty porn that escapes the limelight because vary rarely is it in it. You don’t see flashed across your TV screens, malnourished girls and boys (mostly always black) pumping water from a well. Their parents hoeing into dust bowl gardens, or Indigenous people in third world living arrangements.

Have you ever heard of The White-Savior Industrial Complex? If you haven’t, I suggest you read this by Teju Cole. Teju sent out a series of tweets that struck a chord with many folks. Some disagreed, some agreed. This one tweet in particular resonated with me, it reads.

– The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

I have to admit, it’s emotive. But that’s ok, because poverty is as well. How we all respond to that emotion is key to whether we support brutal policies in the morning, and we found charities in the afternoon, and we receive awards in the evening.

What’s this go to do with the language of research and Indigenous suicide prevention? To put into context a large number of Indigenous Australians live in third world conditions and the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is estimated to be 9-10 years lower than non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are undeniably the most poverty-stricken and oppressed Australians in the country.

Much the Australian charity sector and the billions it attracts, so too does the Indigenous health industry, though its referred to as expenditure. However, the amount that has actually reached Indigenous Australians has been questioned and debunked. The unknown quantum that has been allocated to respond to the ill health of Indigenous Australian, mainly via non-Indigenous NGOs, commonwealth and state ‘programs’ and religious institutions to deliver services, continues to raise the ire of many Indigenous Australians.

Recently it was reported that suicide accounts for the one in 10 deaths of Indigenous Australians.

So, what can we do better?

Guidelines for reporting Indigenous suicide in the media ask for reporters to not sensationalise suicide and to be sure to place the story in context. They ask that the reporting and portrayal of both suicide and mental illness require sensitivity and to be carried out responsibly.

Does research into Indigenous suicide and mental illness require the same level of sensitivity and responsibility? I think so.

Guidelines for reporting Indigenous suicide in the media ask for reporters to not sensationalise suicide and to be sure to place the story in context, we need to have researcher do the same.

Remember, that Indigenous Health expenditure has to go somewhere. Making yourself or your organisation more attractive to this money via the exploitation of Indigenous people’s circumstances is an easy thing to do. Especially when there are no guidelines to hold you into account. The reward however, is not just economical. It can be professional and increase your or your organisation’s social capital and as Cameron Conaway, author of Malaria Poems, points out ‘researchers do not exactly have the greatest ethics track record when it relates to working with those most vulnerable,’ (via the Huffington Post).

What I propose is the need for Ethical Research Language (ERL) in Indigenous suicide prevention, but applicable to other minority/vulnerable groups. Ethical research language can be explained as ‘the written word used to communicate the systemic investigation in to Indigenous suicide grounded in the principles of morality’.

Millions upon millions is being spent ‘on’ Indigenous suicide, but when, as reported, one in 10 deaths are from suicide, something different needs to be done. Ethics applications can no longer just show intent. They need to show the real value that it places on the leadership of Indigenous Australian in the research done upon us.

When the principal investigator’s details and the co-investigator/associate investigator’s details are requested our names and knowledge need to be front and centre.

*this original version of this first appeared here The Stringer