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Can you get me a case study?

June 10th, 2008

Dr Petra

Every day myself and colleagues are asked this question by journalists working in print and broadcast media (particularly those working in TV). Unfortunately for journalists if experts they contact are ethical they are not able to refer case studies (more on this later). This can mean journalists and experts have their time wasted.

But don’t despair, here are some tips for places that you can get case studies from.

‘Be seen’ websites
Increasingly in our celebrity focused culture people want to be on TV or appear in print or on websites. Whether it’s sharing tips on DIY or revealing embarrassing illnesses people are willing to tell their tale. Beonscreen is one example where you can ask for participants for programmes or case studies for features/shows. Admittedly you won’t get a particularly representative group of people through this method and you are going to get folk who want to be famous more than just having a story to share, but if this isn’t a major issue for your programme sites like this can be a good way to get case stories.

Adverts in magazines or newspapers

If you have time you can place adverts in newspapers or magazines (particularly those with a celebrity or ‘real life’ focus). Many editors will let you run a short advert with your email contact/phone number and brief description of your show. If you already work for a publisher or production company you could advertise through their associated websites too (for example if you write for a men’s magazine but want some female case studies you could approach a sister website or magazine within your organisation and ask them to post a call for volunteers).


Posting on messageboards that relate to your particular story/programme topic can be a good way to identify suitable case studies. Don’t forget to ask permission from the board owner before you post, don’t spam in every forum, and check you don’t breach their terms and conditions with your posting.

Social networks and listserves

The number of social networking sites are currently growing and they can be a useful place to share the news about a forthcoming feature or programme and invite participation. You can either set up a group related to your subject area, or join existing groups and ask if people would be interested in taking part (again it’s best to ask the group/list owner for permission before you post, or see if they would post your request to give it some legitimacy).

Charities, self help and special interest groups

Many charitable organisations, self help groups/networks or groups dedicated to hobbies or lobbies are often keen to provide spokespeople to talk about a given area. You may run the risk of fairly vocal (and not always representative) cases from these sources, and some well known organisations (particularly those linked to healthcare/therapy) have a general policy not to refer cases, but it is worth trying different groups to see if they can notify their members about your piece/programme. This could involve their emailing their membership, putting an advert in their group magazine, or placing a call for contributors on their website. It’s likely you will have to provide your information and wait for the group/charity to tell people about you, so you’ll need to be patient!

Clinics, hospitals, therapeutic settings

Individual practitioners and therapists are not usually able to refer you patients/clients due to ethical codes of practice. However larger scale healthcare settings are often able to advertise for cases/contributors. For example if you were making a programme about women’s birth experiences you may find local hospitals will be willing to put up posters about your show/story (and what it involves) which will let people decide if they want to take part.

The Government

Now this might seem like a strange one, but the government are concerned with all manner of public campaigns from safer driving, to reducing alcohol consumption and increasing sexual health. As a result, they will try and help you find case studies if you want to tackle an issue that will allow them to convey a public health or social message. For example the Department of Health or Department for Children, Schools and Families. Their cooperation may depend on your angle, but it could be worth a try. Contact their media office or department relevant to your area of interest and ask them to let you know who is handling the PR for any related campaigns they are running. Those folk will often do their best to get you cases, or can let you know where cases can be found.

Blogs and websites

Some bloggers and site owners are happy to post requests for cases (if it relates to their particular focus). Others resent requests from the media, feeling this compromises their message or ethics. Searching through blogs/sites should indicate if previous calls for cases (or similar requests) have been made through the site and an email to the blog/site owner will clarify further if they can help you.

Friends, family and colleagues

Okay, it’s a boring thing to do and something that’s probably not ‘proper journalism’ but we all know it happens a lot – and can be underrated. Rather than asking your nearest and dearest if they can be the case study though, try another spin and ask them if they can help find cases for you. This can not only expand your range of contacts, you’ll have a better chance of cooperation since people may be more willing to participate if a friend asks them, than if an unknown journo gets in touch.

‘Expert Witnesses’

There are some organisations who actively create spokespeople to talk to the media. One good example is Mental Health Media, but there are other groups (particularly in health and social care) who create opportunities for trained and supported individuals to share their story with you. One disadvantage can mean you end up with cases who are very well versed in their histories, but this is outweighed by access to people who may not usually be willing to talk to the press. (A word of warning here. If you are looking for an ‘expert patient’ always try and work with independent organisations or verify the legitimacy of the group you are dealing with as it’s quite common for drug companies to provide enthusiastic and endearing cases to the media as a publicity exercise).

Use existing examples

This may be a new idea for you, but consider it anyway. Although journalists are currently encouraged to back up their research with ‘statistics’, there’s a whole area of work that’s based on stories – qualitative research. Qualitative studies involve in-depth interviews with people about any number of issues. Published papers will include quotes from people and since these are within the public domain they can be reproduced (with acknowledgement). To do this you can use a search facility like google scholar and search for ‘qualitative’ combined with your key word(s) for your feature/programme. You can contact the author of the paper and ask for a copy, explaining you’d like to base a story on it. Even if you don’t use the quotes, the paper may well inform how you work with other cases.

Prepare your materials

If you want to get cases you’ll save yourself a lot of time by being prepared in advance. Write short adverts appropriate to places you’ll be targeting – websites, magazines, etc. If you are aiming to recruit through organisations or venues prepare attractive posters or flyers you can send to contacts or email as a pdf (remember as these people will be doing you a favour your best bet is probably to print out materials and supply them rather than expecting people to do the work for you, but check and see what would be most appropriate – copies or a pdf).

Your advert should contain information about the programme/story, who you want as a case study, what you’ll need them to do (be photographed, filmed at home etc), and what benefits there are for participation (e.g. payment, a makeover etc). Remember your contact details and information about who you are and who you are writing/researching for – that allows potential participants to check you out before deciding to commit.

So why can’t experts refer cases?

Often people are surprised when I say I can’t refer them cases, but there are good reasons why professionals won’t do this. If you’re a healthcare practitioner (doctor, nurse, psychiatrist) or a therapist or counsellor then your duty is to protect the confidentiality and anonymity of your patients/clients. Telling a journalist about them and deciding to refer a journalist to them equals a breach of that trust relationship. The same applies if you are a researcher, where you sign a legal agreement that a person’s consent to your research is based on you keeping their identity private.

While some journalists may see this as gatekeeping or being particularly authoritarian it’s basically an extension of protecting sources. Any expert who seems willing to refer you a case is unethical and should be avoided – as much for your protection as for the cases they might reveal.

That isn’t to say a practitioner couldn’t advertise your programme within their clinic, college or similar, but asking on an individual level for them to put you in touch with people they talk to or treat is unlikely to generate anything positive and could result in a lost contact.

Remember also that many practitioners are also ethically forbidden from commenting on case studies. The reason for this is if they know the case study directly they’re breaching confidentiality by disclosing information about them (see above), and if they don’t know the case study they are speculating about them. It is possible to talk about an issue affecting a case study (for example you could talk about jealousy but not comment on a jealous person) but this needs to be clearly explained and delineated.

It’s worth remembering this about experts to save time and effort. If in doubt contact professional organisations and university media offices and ask them in advance what their staff/members can or can’t offer.

Why don’t people want to be case studies?

We’re increasingly seeing trends in broadcast media and the tabloid press that case studies are mandatory, but they have to be ‘attractive’/’televisual’ and ‘young’ (or at least younger looking than their years). This approach seems to be proving a particular barrier for many potential participants. While someone might be willing to share their story, their tale may be rejected if they don’t look a particular way. And other folk who do want to talk and fit the bill looks-wise may be less keen after realising they don’t just have to reveal their personal details, they have to be photographed too. Putting pressure on editors to rely less on this approach could well increase you likelihood of getting people to talk to you – and refer cases your way.

I hope this has been helpful. If you’re a member of the press or journalism student feel free to share this with colleagues. And if you’ve any more tips that I’ve missed out please email me and I’ll include them in a future blog.

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