“Everything is copy:” When and how to draw the line
As a journalist, it is normal that ideas for potential stories come to you almost randomly and throughout your everyday life – in a way it is a core expectation of journalists to respond to things happening around them.
“Everything is copy” is a quote by Nora Ephron and it is said to have been the author’s mantra – so much so that her son used the phrase to title the documentary he made about her. Answering the question of “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?” in her autobiography, Ephron said: “Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
Using yourself and your life as a source of inspiration can therefore be a freeing experience and offer a way to process things through a different lens.
However, the “everything is copy” mantra can have its drawbacks if you do truly make everything copy. If you aren’t careful, you might end up blurring the lines between your personal life and your job too much – something which can have an impact on your mental health.
Freelance Journalist Amber Sunner previously talked about the potential drawbacks of using personal experiences – especially when it comes to trauma – in one of our newsletters.
Talking about the ways using personal experience for stories has affected her mental health, she said: “Often when I am running low on writing ideas I look at my personal experiences – namely my trauma. I have written a lot about my trauma – and sometimes I do look back on certain articles I wrote when I was starting out and think that I maybe overshared slightly.
“It’s a catch-22: if you’re out of ideas, it’s natural to look at your personal life for some inspiration. But making trauma your niche can be an unrealistic ask. More importantly, asking people to write solely about their trauma is rather demoralising for the industry. People have layers and to reduce someone just down to their trauma is upsetting.”
Not only can using personal experience and making your life copy for bylines affect yourself and your mental health. It could also affect your relationship with others around you. If you aren’t careful and sensitive with the way you turn the lives of others in your circle into ideas for stories, people might think you are using their life events, something personal to them, to further your career.
There seems to be a fine line between personal experience being a useful source or a dangerous gamble. So, when (and how) do you draw the line?
I went to a wedding recently. It was in this beautiful old mansion that had been derelict for years and was only recently getting renovated by a team of dedicated volunteers. The building had historical significance, too. It was said to have hosted Bonnie Prince Charlie at some point. Throughout the day, I discovered that my friends’ wedding was the first wedding to be held there in more than 80 years. Instantly I thought – this sounds interesting. Maybe not national news, but a nice news story on a local level…and I was right. Two days after the wedding, the story appeared in a regional publication.
Was I sad that someone else got the byline instead of me? A little. Did I regret my decision to not use my exclusive access to this story on the day of the wedding? No.
I could have asked my friends and the volunteers restoring the building that were present on the day of the wedding for quotes to then build a story. I could have left at the end of the day and written up the piece in my hotel room. But the truth was that I was at the wedding as a guest, not as a journalist.
Sometimes you need to draw a line between what is work and what is life. The way I have discovered that works for me is to ask myself:
If this was me, would I be happy for someone to write this story right now?
Essentially, it is what you feel comfortable with:
When I was at my friend’s wedding, I answered the above question with a no. Personally, I did not feel comfortable. This is not to say that my friends would not have been comfortable either. They might have been and another journalist might have been comfortable covering the story on the day…but I wasn’t. I did not feel ready to let go of my experience of attending my friends’ wedding as a guest to attend it as a journalist instead.
It is the same when it comes to your own experiences. Are you happy and comfortable to share these with strangers? Are you happy to write the story right now? If you are uncertain, then it might be worth taking a step back and evaluating if now is the right time for you to make your story public.
It is also about being sensitive to situations of others:
If someone has gone through something traumatic, for example, they might not be ready to share their story in such a public way as articles often are; even if they may share something on social media or in a conversation with you. It is, therefore, important to proceed with care. Check how somebody is doing and if they are ready to talk before ambushing them about a story.
It is important to note here that this is when you have a choice. Sometimes, if you are working as a journalist, you might have to write a story or assignment you are not comfortable with or will have to approach people for a story after they have gone through trauma. I am talking about the situations when you are not working; your everyday life. Because sometimes you need to switch off as a journalist. Not everything can be copy.