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Telling your story: How to write about your own lived experiences as a journalist

Writing personal stories

When it comes to writing about sensitive topics like abuse or discrimination, a reporter has to make sure that the person they are interviewing or writing about feels as comfortable as they can.

But what happens when a journalist wants to tell their own story? For a recent JournoResources event, freelance journalist Rebekah Pierre spoke about different techniques and methods to write about your own lived experiences and how to navigate issues you may come across.

Getting the balance right

The key to any good story or article is balance, and the same goes for writing about lived experiences. The balance here is between personal reflection and including facts and stats to back up what you are saying, advises Rebekah, who has written about what it’s like growing up in the UK’s care system. To back up her story, Rebekah used existing data and redacted anything that she didn’t want to share.

As explained by Rebekah, her story had a micro-macro context, with the micro element focusing on her experiences growing up, and the macro side examining the wider issues that there are with the care system. The format she chose, an open letter, enabled her to control the narrative and the intended audience. Writing from more of a ‘bird’s eye view’ can help with distance from the story while writing it. 

Autoethnography and oversharing

If you’re struggling to decide how to approach your story, then autoethnography can be helpful. Autoethnography is a type of qualitative inquiry, uniting autobiography, the sharing of life experiences, and ethnography. It can offer insight into life and culture and help to focus on what the important elements are of your experience.

According to Rebekah,  there can be a tendency to overshare when writing about an experience that you have lived through. She said that you need to consider the short term versus the long term gains. While the article might help pay the bills now, what impact will it have further down the line? She also spoke of the illusion of control that comes from writing such an article, and that less is more when sharing personal stories.

Trauma mining

When writing about potentially sensitive issues or traumatic events, Rebekah recommended a few ways to avoid future problems and to stop editors asking for too much. The first is to co-produce the headline for the article. Rebekah warned that these can often be sensationlised or misconstrued by editors to improve the SEO and bring in more views on the piece. She advised that writers have control over the content of the article and, therefore, should have a say on the headline as well.

In terms of the content, Rebekah stressed the importance of seeing the final draft before publication. Any edits could change the message. She added it’s also good to have input on any stock images that are used to accompany the article. They may not quite align with the  experiences included or just not quite fit with the angle of the piece.

Finally, Rebekah advised finding out if comments will be enabled on the article. Online trolls are prevalent now and any remarks people make could trigger bad memories and trauma. Rebekah also said that it’s worth considering digital footprints, too. Whatever is shared today is out there in the world for good, and can be accessed by future employers, or family members. Each journalist deserves to be comfortable and happy about that possible future.

To source help – including sources, expert comment, and academic statistics – for your future features, try sending a request to UK PRs via the ResponseSource Journalist Enquiry Service.

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