Why government should start telling the stories of Covid-19’s victims

My heart used to sink as a health reporter when I presented newsdesk with what I thought was a strong story, only for them to respond: “Needs a case study.”

It would turn your day upsidedown.

What had been a simple exercise in writing a 500-word tale about stats and reaction to those stats became a different exercise altogether.

You’d spend all day phoning round charities, previous case study examples and friends of friends begging for someone to come forward.

They’d need to agree to tell their story, to be named, to be photographed, and to have all that done today.

Got kids? Would be great if they were in the photo too. And the dog please.

And with every one of those stipulations, the chances of the whole thing working out diminished quite substantially, leaving you fraught and bosses angry and disappointed.

But news editors were making that request for good reason: readers would pay far more attention to a story about breast cancer data if it featured the face and story of a breast cancer patient.

From a journalist’s point of view, it would elevate your story from a back-of-the-book lead to a spread across pages four and five, and possibly even a splash.

Yet for some reason, the human interest angle has been broadly missing from the Covid-19 situation in Scotland.

More than 4000 people have died from this virus in the last eight months, but I can only bring to mind a couple of high-profile Scottish stories featuring the people behind those tragedies.

I’m speaking to more and more people who simply don’t know anyone who’s died from it or, in some cases, even had coronavirus at all.

That’s partly because of my age-group; too old to have grandparents, but too young to have parents in Covid-19’s direct line of fire.

And while the communication through the pandemic from the Scottish Government – and particularly  the First Minister – has been exceptional, I do feel there is one gap that could be filled.

Start telling the stories of the people who are dying.

Every day Nicola Sturgeon stands up and announces fatality figures – in the past month it’s not been uncommon for those daily numbers to exceed 20.

But they’re washing over the population, myself included, as almost meaningless now, so accustomed have we become to hearing about them.

It’s well-documented many of these deaths will have occurred in people who were likely to die anyway, who were very old and frail, and for whom the usual “human interest” angle of tragedy and unexpectedness may not have applied.

But there will also be pensioners days away from a landmark birthday, people who survived much worse before succumbing to coronavirus, or those who died moments before final wishes and dreams could be accomplished.

Watch live news editors salivate as videos emerge of a victim being allowed to see their beloved dog for the final time.

Such is the butchering by newspapers of staff in recent years, the capacity doesn’t really exist in Scotland for journalists to spend all their time chasing these stories down. As was pointed out to me recently by a senior Scottish politics hack, lockdown restrictions have spelled the end of the infamous “death knock”.

But the government could act.

What’s stopping the Scottish Government’s ample communications resources from putting some effort into telling a Covid-19 story-a-day, and supplying the necessary photos, quotes and details to the media?

And if the media are resistant (as would be their right) to accepting such spoon-fed material, the government could create an online resource for people to visit.

It could even take the form of an “in memoriam” page where others could leave tributes.

There’s a point to this beyond journalistic titillation and the telling of good stories.

Better awareness of the disease and the devastation it causes could help change attitudes, and improve compliance of whatever rules the government wants the public to adhere to at that particular time.

And assuming any memorials or remembrance gardens are some way off, it would also leave a legacy for some of the thousands of people who have died and will die from Covid-19, especially where funerals and traditional send-offs have been cruelly curtailed.

The aforementioned savaging of local, regional and national media by newspaper owners also means there’s no shortage of skilled wordsmiths out there who’d be happy to take this on in a freelance capacity.

It may not be the frontline of the fight against the virus, but it could prove valuable on a number of levels.