Journalists’ lived experiences can feel discouraged in traditional news reporting. However, our personal perspectives can be valuable when transparently articulated.
As the industry has recognized the importance of giving space for people to tell their own stories, knowing how to incorporate personal experiences in your reporting can be an effective approach.
I’ve found that incorporating my experiences – such as being a woman, a parent, living with a mental illness and having certain health conditions – has benefited my reporting. Others may consider sharing their own experiences in other fields, from lifestyle and the environment, to the media, sports and more.
Being your own case study doesn't mean that you can't interrogate a subject objectively. In fact, it can help boost transparency as your audience can more clearly understand what might inform a stance or angle you take.
I have written many articles where I have used my own experience to frame a topic, serve as a jumping-off point for reporting, statistics and case studies, and make my stories more relatable to readers.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how to use these experiences to elevate your reporting:
Unpick the circumstances behind your experience
If you’re a member of a group that is disproportionately affected by a certain phenomenon – for example, an ethnic group that is more susceptible to a certain illness – then using your experience can help better explain the realities to readers.
For journalists, factors including but not limited to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, family history, caring responsibilities, where we live, what we live in, and how much we earn can serve as key frames of reference. Include as many of these that are relevant to your story as you are able to share.
For instance, say you have a health condition that only had a rudimentary treatment when you were a child. By now, medical science might have had a breakthrough. Your experience can be used to dive into the history and provide helpful context, such as by describing your diagnosis and how you felt about it at the time. Insights like these can drive your story and help your audience better understand the subject.
In one piece I wrote, I used my experience with OCD and being a parent to examine how the holidays can impact mental health. This provided context to facts and statistics that helped challenge myths about OCD.
Find experts to add context and color
When including any type of claim, especially a personal one, make sure to back it up with science and statistics as you would any other piece. For a story about health, for example, you can utilize studies and compare your experience to them.
I once used my experience with period tracking to understand the hormonal impact of periods on mental health. To do so effectively, I combined my lived experience with insights from experts.
The more complex the subject matter, the more critical it is to include experts to provide neutral explanations. It can also show the power of looking at the personal and connecting it with scientific analysis. In these cases, citing more than one expert is vital, as different experts will have different backgrounds that can reveal varied insights into an issue.
Couple your experience with solid reporting
When we experience something, it is still important to research the context of what happened to us. Sometimes, our memories rely on “received wisdom.” Something we think is a universal truth may fall apart when we interrogate where our ideas come from.
What we believe based on our own experiences might not be factually accurate, or may no longer hold up today due to scientific or technological advancements. If you were told something 20 years ago, find out what the context was at the time. Doing so can present a more rounded picture of the impact of a certain condition, event or circumstance.
I once wrote for Study Hall Digest about impartiality at the BBC, drawing on my experiences of working at the outlet. I was able to fact-check claims using the timeline and communications I had of the rollout of new rules and processes at the organization. This helped me contextualize the experiences of my contacts, and better explain the problems staff face in public service broadcasting.
Present your conclusions
It is important to present a clear-headed conclusion in your reporting, regardless of how it relates to your experience. Consider, for instance, ending a piece by assessing the future of the problem you’ve written about, or its ongoing impact on the current generation.
While your experience may be something that affects many others, the way that you feel about it might not be universal. As journalists, any retelling of our opinions or experiences should always be presented as just that – and never as truth or fact.