Your story but their life…

Here is the story that never was.

A newspaper agreed to publish the feature and seemed keen on my new approach, having previously put the dampeners on a less personal way into the topic.

Basically, they wanted to hear the human story rather than talk to academics who had carried out what seemed to me interesting research connected to an upsetting disease.

I knew of such a story, approached someone and they agreed to talk. The feature was written, then written again, as is the way with me. It was the finished article, or so it seemed. I emailed the features desk and said the feature would be arriving soon, once I had made a further visit.

It was a sobering visit and afterwards I went home to tinker with my words once more. Again, it seemed like a decent piece of work. That’s the thing with this job sometimes. You want a story because stories make the world go around. You want a story to put a few more pounds in the freelance pot. And you want to see your words published.

Your words but someone else’s life. That’s where this affair fell apart. The person I had interviewed no longer wished to see their story in print. On reflection, the whole experience was far too upsetting and they weren’t up to having their life shared in this way.

My first reaction was reasonable in terms of a frustrated freelance: that’s 1,300 words gone to waste; and unreasonable in terms of being a decent human being: it was my story but someone else’s life.

I have given no fuller details here. To do so would be unfair and unethical. Also, my disappointment made me question the ways of journalism for a day or so. Don’t be surprised if in my lecturing gig next term, I come up with a topic called: “Your story but their life.”

A sympathetically written story about someone else’s difficulties can help and often people are happy to share their struggles. The story that never was concerned something it is common to fear nowadays. Sharing would have been good, I thought. I was left frustrated by the wasted effort, and then felt shamefaced. All I had lost was one piece of work and one fee. The people I had been trying to write about had lost so much more than that.

I don’t often tackle difficult topics and most people are pleased to see me when I turn up with my questions and my digital recorder. The artist I went to see this week was thrilled to be interviewed. I think I’d still be sitting there if I hadn’t made my excuses and left. It was very cold in that studio.

My conclusion to all this is to remember that other people’s lives belong to them and not to you. It’s not exactly a useful motto for a journalist, but it’s a wise thought to keep in mind.


Leave a Reply