Learning from Illness (11) – Journalist in the Way

I’ve been a journalist for most of my adult life and, as that implies, I’ve spent time wondering about the nature of media and truth, and whether or not there is any correlation between the two. We journalists don’t set out to distort reality, and some of us do a fine job in exposing truths that many would prefer to keep hidden, but the journalistic process is still something that can tend to obscure.

You can write all you want about some issue, but if your editor decides he or she is not interested in it, it never reaches the public. The editor decides what the public reads – based on what he thinks the public will find interesting, not necessarily what’s in the public interest. So it’s never quite as simple as what you do or write, and what’s left out is often more important than what goes in.

But even on a personal level, I think journalists bring their own subjectivity to bear before the prejudices of editors get their say. Sometimes, when I am talking to people, I am conscious that they are not being quite as direct with me as they might be with someone else. One of my journalism professors (Steve Forster) once told me that a journalist should dress in a way that reflected the people with whom he or she was dealing on a daily basis. He believed that it was important to get people to feel comfortable with you, feel you were ‘like them’, so that they would trust you.

“There’s no point trying to interview homeless people in a suit, or to get business people to take you seriously in jeans,” was his philosophy, and I get that.

But sometimes, journalists are just in the way. They can’t get to a story because they’re the obstacle themselves. None so blind as them that will not see, and all that.

When you have interviewed a lot of people, you learn that body language and verbal responses will sometimes take a person in a direction which they hadn’t planned. You want them to give you a ‘story’, so you encourage them to go into details on stuff that might be better left unsaid, from their point of view, but stuff you know will be riveting for your readers. It’s all in the game, as they would say on The Wire.

As a journalist, you play your part of that game. Sometimes you know someone has gone too far and will be in big trouble for what they’ve said – perhaps even lose their job. I adopted the ‘all in the game’ approach to this moral conundrum, and always have done. If the person was a civilian, I’d tell them the implications of being ‘quoted on that’, and get them to back away from the danger area, but if they were a politician or PR professional, it was ‘all in the game’. I’d let them sing themselves into the sh*t.

But I was always there – changing the process through my presence. The journalist, the filter. Slightly encouraging this, and ever so slightly discouraging that.

Except when you are in a hospital bed paralysed by pain and painkillers, you don’t engage with anyone. You don’t change anyone’s filter or affect the process of communication, because there is none. It’s just that not much happens in hospitals that is newsworthy. And most patients are too concerned about themselves to take an interest in other patients. But one story told itself while I lay there, and I thought it was different to anything I ever could possibly have read in a newspaper or magazine. Perhaps because I reluctantly eavesdropped, rather than interviewed. Well, I couldn’t help hearing.

A young man in the ward had his family come in to visit him and there were six or seven people there, including children. They sat around and chatted for a while and then one of the men decided to go outside the building for a cigarette. The hospital – and most of the grounds of the hospital – are smoke-free, so it was a bit of an excursion.

I had already gleaned that one of the children there was five years old. Since his uncle was going out he decided to accompany him. After about ten or fifteen minutes, they both came back. But it was what happened next that stunned me.

The father – who was the person in hospital – was also confined to his bed and couldn’t move very much. He said to his son: “I hope you weren’t smoking out there with your uncle.” The son grinned back at him.

“Hold him up to me,” said the father. At this point, one of the women present held the boy up to his father’s face.

“I can smell it off you,” said the father. “You were smoking out there. I hope you only had a puff of your uncle’s cigarette. Did you just have a puff of your uncle’s cigarette?”

Now this to me was not the real question. The real question was the humour that was apparent among the rest of the family. There was a certain amount of grinning, and a certain amount of giggling, but it was about the fact that the young boy might be in a bit of trouble with his Dad. Had I been involved, I would have questioned immediately the morality of allowing a five-year-old to smoke. But that’s me.

Instead, because I couldn’t move, I listened to the drama unfold. I thought of that poor misguided man, the former Minister for Health, James Reilly, who wanted to ban smoking in cars where children were present. What would he do in this case? What would he do if it was the child that was smoking?

The situation was resolving itself across the ward. The father was telling the boy that he ‘didn’t want him smoking’ while he was in hospital, but it was said in the way that you’d tell a child to tidy up their building bricks – more in hope than expectation that they would listen to you.

I hadn’t thought there were five-year-olds out there developing a tobacco habit, but then, maybe I live in a rarefied world on my own making and imagining. It’s always like that whether you’re sick or well – it’s very hard to see past your own little life into the big, bad reality of life on this benighted planet.

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