Opinion: Third Voice - Charities can exploit the media's desire for 'real life'

Penelope Gibbs is director of the Voluntary Action Media Unit and was a speaker at last week's Charity Communications conference in London.

The media's thirst for human interest stories is insatiable - most magazines offer substantial payments for real-life testimonies. There are now 30 different 'real-life' titles on the newsstands, all desperate to fill their pages. And each story has to be an exclusive because of the competition for readers.

A host of intermediaries have sprung up, happy to broker stories - the beonscreen website, for example, markets itself as "your ticket to appearing on television shows". Yet I have never heard of a charity gaining money from offering case studies. These magazines offer amazing opportunities to reach people - one-third of the female population buys a woman's magazine regularly.

The Voluntary Action Media Unit conducted research last year with both the media and charities. Case studies were one of the most contentious issues. Charities complained bitterly of journalists who wasted their time asking for interviewees who were then not used, and of vulnerable individuals traumatised by insensitive questioning or misrepresentation of their stories. One charity told us a magazine had offered a donation to show their appreciation of its work, but the money never materialised.

Both sides expressed frustration with the other. Journalists and researchers complained that charities were reluctant to offer case studies and slow to respond to their requests. About 1,600 charities are now registered on www.askcharity.org.uk, our media contacts database. The other day, five News, which has an audience of a third of a million, put out an email request "looking for people who suffer with depression to talk about their experiences as part of a piece about treatment techniques". The email went to 87 charity contacts who deal with mental health issues but, even though the timing was tight, we were surprised to hear that only one charity responded.

The desire for human interest stories is growing in features, news and reality TV. Can charities exploit this development without being exploited themselves? Andrew Hogg, head of media at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, is convinced they can. He 'screens' each request, assessing if the journalist is just fishing for a story or not, and only puts forward victims who are strong enough to be interviewed. Things do go wrong, but the gains in terms of coverage for his organisation and its work outweigh the losses.

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