Personal stories can be powerful but dangerous – Karyn McCluskey

Karyn McCluskey says organisations that seek out people to be media 'case studies' need to change their approach
Karyn McCluskey says organisations that seek out people to be media 'case studies' need to change their approach
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Telling real human stories helps communicate hard, complicated issues to the wider public through the media, but anyone doing so should think carefully about what they are prepared to say and what the consequences might be, writes Karyn McCluskey.

When is a case study not a case study? When it’s a person. I apologise – it’s not much of a punchline and not funny either, but we need to talk about how we treat people with difficult, traumatic and upsetting stories to tell.

Almost my entire career has been spent working with people who had horrible things happen to them, who have done horrible things to others and, often, both. I know the power of hearing those stories for the first, fifth or 50th time. I know how fundamental real human stories are to communicating hard, complicated issues – I’ve used them myself. They engage your audience, they illustrate real impact and they can provoke empathy, support and a desire to act. Campaigners know this, journalists know this – instinctively, we know the power of someone telling us what happened to them.

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But increasingly I worry about how casual we are with the enormous and fragile gift of someone’s story. I’ve colleagues who struggle to be taken seriously as a professional and shake off the ‘case study’ label carelessly stuck on them.

I know others who feel they can only justify their place at the table by retelling – and reliving – the worst things that have ever happened to them over and over again, in front of rooms filled with strangers.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

I’ve worked with people who have felt they can’t say no when organisations who’ve supported them ask if they’ll do media and haven’t known how to say no to journalists’ questions. And then have seen the comments stack up online underneath their lives laid bare, forever. No more is it yesterday’s chip wrapper.

So what to do? Like so much, to understand you need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. After all that’s why ‘case studies’ are so sought after. We all have stories to tell and not many of us would share them publicly – but if we did, how would we want to be treated?

It’s not the most exciting of answers but training and guidance are vital. Not so much the media training about what colours to wear or phrases to avoid (although that has value) but something deeper, reflective and thoughtful.

Not everyone knows what they’re opening the door to when they decide to share their story; talking through the potential repercussions is vital and must be the start of any conversation about speaking publically. Next is deciding why you want to share your story; to inspire hope, provoke change or highlight injustice? It can’t be because someone else wants you to.

Take care

Once you know why, you can figure out what to say. First work out what is private, personal and public and decide whether you want to be anonymous – it’s hard to row that one back.

Figure out if you might hurt others by identifying them, even inadvertently, or hurt yourself down the road.

Second, you don’t owe the world all the gory details, despite its appetite for them, you share what you feel will serve your reason for speaking. And after going through that, know that it might still be wrong for you and you can still say no – people’s disappointment is not enough for you to give away pieces of your life.

Those of us who look for people to share their stories have to change our approach. We must respect people’s choices and autonomy, recognise and redress any power in-balance and be honest about whose best interest sharing stories really serves.

If we want their experience and guidance, let’s encourage them to apply for roles within our organisations. Let people who have been ‘there’ help design and deliver services. But most importantly, stop reducing our fellow humans to ‘case studies’.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland