When people come before headlines

For the second time in a month, I find myself emotionally involved with a family I set out to write a story about. I’m at risk of coming out of both experiences with neither professional kudos or cash in the bank.

I reckon this equals a double-double fail for a freelance journalist.

But you know what? I don’t mind. I really don’t. I have learned and gained so much from both encounters that headlines and cheques seem irrelevant.

I’ve shed tears and felt a deep connection for both families at the heart of these stories, which have moved me immeasureably.

I’ve been empowered and uplifted by the amazing spirit people manage to summon up in the face of the most awful adversity.

Let me start with a story which came to my notice via a Facebook post. It led me to the door of a woman in Sutton Coldfield.

Introducing myself as an occasional freelance journalist and nice person, she initially rebuffed me.

But the next day, after an endorsement from a mutual friend and a Google search to check I was who I said I was, we spoke by phone and arranged to meet.

It was quickly evident this was a story of national interest. This amazing woman had been the victim of a terribly violent attack, which also almost claimed the life of her then unborn baby. Aspects of her story had made her a tabloid target. The story had been widely reported in the national media at the time, and she had been approached many times to share her story.

She had never spoken publicly, until now.

I was privileged to hear her story, which she relayed to me in harrowing detail, and I was desperately keen to do anything I could to help.

What happened next was that I slipped, unthinkingly, into my alternative role as a media manager.

I make my living at the moment doing PR work with various organisations, advising and managing their public face and reputation. I do so while harbouring ambitions to somehow bring together this experience with my previous identity as a journalist to create some new multi-faceted role as a content creator-cum-writer-cum-videographer. I’m taking a part time Masters in online, multi-platform media for this very reason, to add digital skills to 15 years daily regional experience.

So before I knew it I had become PR advisor Jane, offering advice about how to best tell the story and who to, and how to make an impact with her campaign.

Later I approached a much more seasoned hack for advice about what to do with the story. She was certain it would have national traction and possibly international syndication if the woman was prepared to talk about the more sensational aspects of her story, and she offered to take the story off my hands, giving me a decent cut of any fees earned.

The conversation nagged at me for hours afterwards. I had just spent an afternoon talking to a strong, spirited, but desperately vulnerable, woman who had been through a horrific ordeal. She had only agreed to speak to me on the grounds that she would not discuss particular aspects of her story. She trusted me to guide her, when she had every reason never to trust anyone again.

I was pretty certain that in the hands of a skilled tabloid journalist she might reveal more than she was ultimately comfortable with. I was also certain that with the guidance of this particular experienced freelance I could command decent fees for myself for the subject of the story too – at a time when she was raising funds for an emergency service that saved her. She’d be a cover story in Take A Break! and a double page feature in the Daily Mail – and who knows what else.

After speaking to the woman and sharing these thoughts with her, she asked me to write the story and deal with it myself (and definitely not speak to the Daily Mail or Take A Break!)

I wrote a news article, which she was happy to read. She asked for no amendments. With her agreement, I approached contacts at two national papers, a radio show and a TV magazine show.

But a leaked story earlier in the week, via a friend of the victim’s facebook post, made it a difficult sell. The basics of the story were now “out there”, freely accessible – if lacking totally the woman’s perspective or quotes.

So the hours I’d invested visiting, interviewing, writing, amending and teeing up media outlets were, in effect, voluntary and free.

But to be honest I became so emotionally invested in such a short time that the goal now switched to getting the story told as well as possible, even at the risk of coming out of the experience with nothing – neither professional kudos and bylines, or cash in the bank account.

Which is crazy, right?

But it turns out I’ve got a bit of form.

Last month I picked up another Facebook post from a family about their difficulties selling their shared ownership flat and the subsequent impact on their lives.

They had a beautiful young son with severe, life-limiting disabilities. They urgently wanted to move out of their second floor flat to somewhere they could easily access with his wheelchair and breathing and feeding paraphernalia.

It turned out that a major housing company was involved; for nine months they had told the family there was nothing they could do to help.

I felt strongly that though they had no legal contractual obligation to help the family, they might be open to helping them on moral grounds.

I spent several hours with the family one afternoon and made a video which captured their difficulties getting their son in and out of his home. This was a medium that told their story in a way far superior to words, showing mum struggling up and down four flights of stairs with toddler, life saving equipment and feeding tubes.

The video I created was a really honest reflection of their plight. I included a fair  statement from the housing company in which they offered to help the family market their property but said they could do nothing else, nor were legally obliged to.

I shared the finished video with the family and gave permission for them to show it to the housing company before it went public.

The next morning, on the verge of promoting the story to contacts at local newspapers and  TV, the family called to say they had been asked to meet the housing company’s chief executive.

They didn’t expect anything to come of it, but asked me to hold off for a couple of days.

No problem, of course…and as it turned out the video I’d made had worked its magic.

When company directors viewed it they recognised the potentially negative impact on their hard earned reputation as a caring organisation – and immediately offered to step in and buy the property outright, thus freeing the family from the ties that bound them.

The family were ecstatic. I couldn’t help but shed a tear when the young mum rang to let me know, barely able to speak because of her emotion. I had, she said, made her year and ended nine months of hell.

But the story was a dead duck. The company had asked, and the family had agreed, that the video and story would go nowhere now the issue had been resolved.

I could have ignored them – although it would, I’m sure, have been ethically wrong on all counts to put out a story featuring a disabled two year old against his family’s wishes.

I could have rewritten the story and reshaped the video to reflect the company’s positive action – but while the firm had agreed, belatedly, to ‘do the right thing’, they didn’t want to be seen to have done so, fearful of the precedent it might set.

So it seems I’ve got a lot to learn about being a freelance journalist with any type of business nous; I’m sure there is a way of combining integrity and commercial sense, isn’t there? All advice happily taken!

In the meantime, I’ll happily settle for being what I hope is a decent human being with a story telling skill.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to hire a sensitive writer with empathy, I’m here!

Contact me via Twitter: @janerockhouse

UPDATE: The first story highlighted above made it into the national media after all, including a national exclusive and articles in a range of other media. I’m still working closely with the victim – and remain happy to do so. They say what comes around, goes around…eventually.

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