There are some words and phrases that strike fear and despair into the hearts of journalists. One is “doorstep”, referring to the hours spent outside the house/office of a notable person in the news, waiting for them to come out and say something. Sometimes they do; usually they don’t. On such occasions it is inevitably raining.
Another is “do a round of calls” – ring round the police offices, fire stations, ambulance and coastguard to see if anything is happening. Almost without exception the response is “all quiet”, even when you know the opposite to be true.
For me, one of the most dreaded is “do a case study” – find a person willing to stand up, be named and pictured to help personalise a story.
In the field of health, such people are incredibly useful. Who else knows more about what it is like to experience a particular illness or undergo a particular treatment?
Often they can put across in just a few hundred words what the world’s leading experts would struggle to say in several thousand, given their own personal perspective on the matter.
My dread comes not from having to speak to these patients – they are invariably friendly, articulate and interesting, and I am often left in awe of their willingness to speak to a complete stranger about their own very personal circumstances.
But sometimes finding someone willing to share this information and then have it published for all to see can prove to be a real challenge. This is increasingly the case as more and more stories are published online, meaning someone on the other side of the world could soon be reading about your trauma.
Increasingly, those willing to talk want to do so under the cover of anonymity. This can be understandable. For example, someone suffering mental illness may fear stigma if they are identified. But how can such stigma be challenged if people are not willing to be named?
In other cases, patients may not want to be identified if they are in any way critical of the care they have received from the NHS. They fear that speaking out could affect their dealings with the health service in future. Maybe these fears are well-founded, though one would hope they’re not.
We should pay tribute to those willing to tell their stories, openly and often with humour even in difficult circumstances. They have, I know, helped many a person come to terms with their own situation and seek help for symptoms that they may otherwise have ignored. Their service to us all – and not just struggling journalists – cannot be underplayed.