Interviewing People

The following two interviews tell personal experiences from a family member and a person in recovery who have been interviewed by journalists several times. They share their positive and negative experiences with the media. They also share some thoughts on how journalists and editors could approach people who are willing to share their story.

Sandra’s Story:

Q: Tell us about your experiences with the media.

Sandra: Over the last few years, since I’ve started Midlothian Family Support Group and then Families Campaign for Change, the media have been interested in what I’ve got to say because I have put my name and my voice out there.

I don’t hide my anonymity and I don’t hide the fact that I’m a mum of three recovering addicts and there’s always a story wanted round about the times of the drug deaths being announced. The media jump on that like it’s an annual event and every newspaper and every television programme, my phone goes like mad the day before it and the morning of the announcement.

And I feel quite sad that that’s when they choose to go and make it so public but the biggest thing that I don’t like and I now am able to say it…when they’re introducing these stories in the newspaper and the television, this showing needles, spoons and paraphernalia…that’s what really upsets me. To see that they’ve never moved away from that over the years, that’s all you ever see and they’re still doing it. That’s the first thing they put up.

So to the general public, the feedback I get…that puts their backs up right away, and that starts the stigma immediately this paraphernalia is showing. Instead, show something more sympathetic, maybe a family in crisis, a photograph of a family, or someone in addiction in despair…that would I think would hit home, which the stigma campaign on the television just now I think that is really good. That’s working. But they need to change that to the media and the newspapers instead of this drugs paraphernalia.

So I would say probably from now on unless if I’m involved in an interview and that’s what they’re going to start it with, I’ll withdraw from doing it and I think that’s going to have to be a stance that we take to say we’ve decided we want this paraphernalia to be stopped as the first thing that comes up on the screen or on the front of a newspaper when you’re telling a story. Because behind the story of that paraphernalia is always very sad, it’s very upsetting to people to see how addiction affects our loved ones and the family and then you get the empathy and the shock and how serious it is but before people have got to that bit of the story…they’ve judged it already. So I think it would be quite easy to take a stance on that with the paraphernalia…that’s my biggest issue with it.

Not an issue with the journalist or the people that are interviewed me…I feel have been very compassionate and in a lot of the newspaper interviews I’ve done over the years, the reporters have told me they’ve had addiction in their own family and they could see me as their mum because I was in such despair and how I fought for my family to get the right services and treatment to help them get into recovery with the trauma they’ve had in their life. So I don’t find it particularly daunting with the journalists themselves and I have built a relationship with a few journalists that I now trust and I’m willing to go with interviews and documentaries that I’m now involved with, but I am making a stance regarding the way the first images come up on the television or on the newspapers to try and get them to stop this, the needles, the tinfoil, the substance…mostly heroin and tablets because that does affect the general public towards the stigma.

Q: You’ve shared your story quite a lot in very many outlets, what’s been good about sharing your story?

Sandra: I feel free. I’m not embarrassed. I’m not ashamed. I’m proud of my family. I’m proud of what they’ve achieved and once I got over the embarrassment, the shame of being a mum with addiction in the family, it was a release to be able to talk about it and it helps hundreds of other families with what I’ve done over the years and I mean hundreds. The amount of feedback I get and phone calls I get because I’m proud to put my name out there and share my story because I’m not embarrassed or ashamed. I’m so proud of my family for what we’ve achieved and we’ve done it as a family. My family couldn’t have done this without me and I couldn’t have done it without them. We’ve gained the strength of each other and it’s been a ripple effect…it’s a parallel path to recovery. The whole family needs to recover and that’s exactly what’s happened in my family because I’ve never stopped loving my family. I’ve never stopped supporting them. Sometimes I’ve not liked what’s happened and I don’t always agree with what’s happened but I’ve been there to love and support them and never stopped.

And I’m really proud today sitting at this time in 2022 to say my three girls are in recovery and doing amazing and we all support each other.

Q: If you could give advice to a journalist whose writing about addiction or recovery what would it be?

Sandra: My advice would be to come into the story with a very open mind and have compassion and understanding. If addiction was any other illness, like cancer or diabetes, the sympathy and the care and compassion would automatically be there when you mention these illnesses. The minute you mention addiction, stigma steps out right away. People are very opinionated, they actually don’t know anything about the story, or about addiction and how it affects a family, how it affects our loved ones in addiction. It is a disease of the brain but people don’t agree with that, they’ll say its a choice. It may be a choice to start with…but there is no choice. It’s addiciton and it needs help and support.

And if people had more empathy towards addiction and stopped showing the paraphernalia at the beginning of every story, the stigma would soon start to lif and people would maybe see what was bhind these stories. THe trauma that is behind nearly every addict; ther is always trauma behind their story. Mental helath issues are very serious in addiction and i think they need to have a wee bit of research and a wee bit of education before they come in with two boots to start making opinions on something that they actually really dont know about. Unless you’ve got addiction in your family and understand it, i think you are too opinionated.

Rod’s Story

Q: Tell us about your experiences with the media

Rod: So my name is Rod, I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I’ve just passed my birthday in recovery. So I’ve got a kinda mixed bag like a lot of people with experiences of the media and it’s something that I embraced very enthusiastically in early recovery. Don’t think I’m alone in wanting to tell my story. Wanting other people to know how excellent it is to be in recovery and also I don’t think I’m alone in being quite naive around my experiences with the media.

So for me, my first engagement with the media was having a small piece published in The Times in 2015 and it’s really only a year into my recovery journey. I remember being very enthusiastic about it and being quite excited. A little bit egotistical around getting my name in the paper. And when i read the piece, I remember being a little disappointed in the translation between what i said and what came out from the output from the journalist.

So for me, it was the use of some stigmatising language, it was a slight twist in the narrative around exactly what I had said and it was using descriptions of me that I wasn’t quite comfortable with. And I think that would be my biggest piece of learning around engaging with the media is losing control of the narrative. That is my big message. Because every time I had engaged with journalists, other than when I did a small piece on tv, I’ve been disappointed with what came out and if I could give anybody advice around doing this whether it’s a journalist or someone in recovery who wants to share their story, it would generally be quite positive in that it’s really good to have visible recovery. It’s personally very important to me that people know about my story and the fact that recovery from addiction is possible in Scotland but be very careful of losing control of the narrative because often what comes back isn’t quite what you said.

So in terms of my experience, I had that small piece published in The Times, I had a small piece in the local newspapers where I live in the Scottish Borders which was around getting an award from the Scottish Parliament which was interesting because I lost total control of that narrative and it really painted a different picture than the one I wanted.

I had an in-depth piece in The Scotsman around minimum pricing when that came out I think in 2017 which again was really good mostly, but some of it was the use of inappropriate language and again it was kinda mixed around the way I felt about it. The best experience I’ve had was doing a little piece on the local news around the use of anti-depressants for people in recovery which was…and I was really pleased with that. It was very sympathetically edited and because it was my words said by me, I was really happy with what I had said and I was also really happy with the bits he edited when I said kinda stupid things which we all do.

So I think generally speaking my advice to journalists is to be aware because for me my enthusiasm, my naiveite around engaging with the media, I think could bite a lot of people when they see what’s written about them and I think my advice to any journalist who was engaging with somebody in recovery, particularly people in early recovery, is to go through all the positives and negatives of having your story out there in terms of it being out there permanently and just ensuring that people are ready for any fallout there might be, which I wasn’t. And there was some fallout from family members and people in my local community. Nothing drastic, some of it was quite funny, and I’m quite happy to tell you about that, but that’s kinda the gist of my story really.

Q: You’ve shared your story quite a lot in very many outlets, what’s been good about sharing your story?

Rod: The good thing about sharing my story goes back to some of the stuff I just said really around…it’s always been important for me to get recovery…visible recovery out there, particularly in my local community. So I live in a very rural part of the South Borders in Scotland where we are not the most forward-thinking people and generally I think people with addictions would rather it was hidden and people didn’t know. There’s a lot of stigma around people who use drugs and alcohol in our communities, so for me, I’ve always wanted to say actually being in recovery is a really possible thing.

But interestingly…going back to the wee bit of tv that I did and it was just a little bit but it was really interesting for me because a few days after that or I think the next day, I was out in the local village where I live. I was putting my bin out the next day for the binmen to take away the next day and I met the old lady who lives two doors up from me who I’ve lived next door to for 20 years and she said ‘oh I saw you on the tv last night’ and I said ‘oh did you that was nice’ and she said ‘I never knew you were an alcoholic’ and I said ‘well there you go, you know now’ and she said ‘well yeah but you don’t look like one!’ So for me, that was really interesting because it was around challenging someone’s perceptions of what an alcoholic looks like and somebody actually realising it could be anyone. It could be a member of your family, it could be your brother, your sister, your best friend, who is affected by addiction. And that was massively powerful and the more stuff we can I think the better, particularly in the terrible state we’re in just now with drug deaths.

So just a little positive spin on my experiences which have generally been very good but I think we have to be very careful people in recovery through thinking it through.

Q: If you could give advice to a journalist whose writing about addiction or recovery what would it be?

Rod: It would be 100% clarity around the message that the person in recovery wants to give out. 100% clarity around being sure that that is definitely what they want to do. Because…and what I mean by that is, for me, I think that some stuff I have done in the past around some media stuff…particularly the article that I had in The Scotsman, I probably wouldn’t do that again. And if I was to do it again I would want to see it and have some input to it before it was published which most journalists are not keen to do and certainly the journalist…and it was a very sympathetic piece don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t attacking me in any way, but there was some use of language, there were some descriptions of me that I was uncomfortable about, and I think that it’s important to double-check with people exactly what it is you are saying about them and make sure that’s okay with them.

And I have said previously my first piece of advice to people in recovery around doing press and PR and all that would be don’t do it. And I have said that because I hear some horror stories around people being manipulated and the story not being quite right and all that.