The risks and rewards of media coverage
Louise Tickle, our Journalist at large, explains her ethical approach and the importance of maintaining independence as a journalist
Journalism is only as good as the people who do it. Carried out with a lack of ethics and empathy, it can be upsetting and destabilising. At worst it can unjustifiably destroy work and reputations that have taken lifetimes to build.
At its best though, the media provides a vital public service we would all suffer without. Journalists ask the difficult questions that hold power to account.Around the world, every year, journalists are killed because they refuse to stop challenging people and governments who abuse their power.
Though I’ve never been in a place of personal danger, it’s never easy to ask the difficult questions. It feels rude. It can be scary.
Opening up to journalists
While some people feel at ease talking to the press, I know that others are anxious. And that is understandable. You can’t know if there’s an agenda behind the coverage that’s proposed. You’re unlikely to know the angle the journalist is coming from – and there have been occasions when people have felt misled into participating in documentaries and press coverage that have not squared with the original premise as described. Essentially, you don’t have any control over the end result. And while media independence is critical to journalists’ ability to analyse and explain the world, for the person at the centre of a story, having no control is not a comfortable place to be.
Given the potential risks then, why would anyone engage with the media?
The answer is that the benefits can be huge. Publicity for the work you’re doing can lead to exciting new relationships with people who can help you achieve your goals. The kudos can lead to new funding opportunities. Positive coverage offers communities and individuals the satisfaction of their efforts being recognised. And if you’re campaigning, media interest can help inform society about a pressing issue and leverage lots of support for your cause.
This doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, people who actively want to talk to the media can be especially vulnerable. I’ve specialised in writing about subjects such as domestic abuse, child protection and family courts, and you don’t get more vulnerable than a victim of domestic abuse, or a woman whose baby is removed by court order, or a child without settled immigration status facing deportation.
This means that building confidence – and being worthy of that trust – is a fundamental aspect of good journalism. And that requires honesty with interviewees from the very start.
A particular interest in transparency in our family law system has led to me contributing a regular column for Family Law journal, detailing my experiences of fighting for greater scrutiny and accountability in the family courts. I also contribute comment pieces to The Guardian and do detailed investigations for long-form articles that often take months to research and write. For one of these – a Guardian long-read – I spent nine months working with one woman whose newborn infant was removed at birth, to tell the story of how she fought her local authority’s negative assessment of her and, unusually succeeded in getting him back. The experience of losing her baby was deeply traumatic: it’s a trauma that endures and always will.
Before embarking on the research I needed to do, I took care to explain that I would not only be giving her point of view in the article, but would need to reflect the local authority’s position as well. I warned her that the piece would very likely include details that didn’t show her in a positive light. I said that I might discover information that she didn’t want me to know, or that didn’t match with her version of events. I said that committing to participate in this article would take substantial amounts of her time.
All the time I worked on the article, I checked to make sure that she was coping.
The woman in question, who I called “Annie” in the piece, withstood considerable emotional turmoil so that this article could be published, including supporting me in a court case to be able to publicise the details of what happened in the hearings where she fought for her baby.
Partly through the profile gained as a result of that article, she has become a nationally recognised campaigner for family rights, trains social work students in how to work with birth parents and gives talks to family lawyers and local authorities. She has also become a very dear friend.
Making a difference?
Meanwhile, it’s not always easy to tell whether an article has made any impact at a national policy level, but just occasionally, you find out that it has.
Earlier this year, I spent several months working on a substantial feature that explored the life-changing challenges – as well as the rewards – of being a kinship carer for a child who might otherwise end up in the care system or adopted.
It was published not in The Guardian, where one might normally expect to see this kind of subject being explored, but in The Times Magazine. And I think this made a difference to the influence it had.
A few days after the feature ran, the communications manager for a charity which had helped me source case studies emailed me with information that made me skip with glee. She said that senior members of the civil service had read the piece, taken an interest, and asked the government’s policy lead on kinship care into a number of meetings to explain exactly what difficulties these carers and the children they looked after had to cope with.
“We’re over the moon” she wrote. “It’s exactly the kind of audience we needed to reach.”
I hold on hard to those moments!
Professionally, I try to think carefully about how I operate and what I write affects the people who let me into their lives. I’ve asked other journalists for their views on what we owe our interviewees, and recently wrote a feature on the subject which can be read in this edition of the National Union of Journalists membership magazine.
We should be pleased and proud that we have a free press in this country. The alternative is frightening and would not serve us well. Freedoms, though, always come with responsibilities. I take them seriously.
Louise Tickle, has been awarded Local Trust's first ever Journalist at large fellowship. The fellowship requires Louise to work independently as she helps to tell the fascinating story of Big Local.
If your Big Local has a story you want to share with Louise, please do get in touch.