By Zach Schepis
Image courtesy of New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
You wake up too early for a job that you hate, and it’s raining outside. Endless sirens blare through the streets while dreary faced strangers pass you by, they’re most likely drifting along to jobs they too dislike. The city seems gray and devoid of meaning. You open up your copy of The Times and flip through the headlines. There’s another suicide bombing. A young girl was raped uptown. Protesters in the mid-west are being wrongfully arrested. Another natural disaster uproots families from their homes.
It takes all the strength you can muster to suppress a deep sigh.
Before crumpling the paper into a waste bin, an article catches your eye. It’s about an Indian boy who has been reunited with his mother after losing her 25 years ago. The story is heartwarming and full of hope. There’s more. Another article describes the benevolent struggle of a man who gave up his entire life savings to support a starving village in Sierra Leone. Then there’s the local story of a firefighter who dedicates his free time toward rescuing stray cats and dogs in the neighborhood.
As readers, there are a number of factors that we seek when determining if an article is “newsworthy.” Obviously timing plays a central role; otherwise news would not be new. Consumers are accustomed to receiving the latest updates, and with so much happening in the world, old news is quickly tossed to the wayside.
Significance then becomes the next important determinant. How many people are being affected by the story? An attack in which a dozen innocent bystanders are killed in a major center of commerce is more significant than a car crash which takes the life of a single driver.
Next up is proximity. Obviously the stories that occur closer to home will bear more significance to us as readers. Proximity, however, need not be confined to mean only geographical distance. We might be more interested in a story concerning China than we would a much closer South American nation.
Last but not least is prominence. It goes without saying that those in the limelight will naturally get more attention than those who are not. If Kanye West fractures his leg you better believe it will be a hell of a lot more newsworthy than if you break the very same bone.
There is a type of story, however, that seemingly defies all of these determining factors, yet still manages to be newsworthy. I’m talking about “the human interest story.” Chances are you’ve been reading them all of your life even if you never knew what to call them.
Essentially, a human interest story is written with the intention of motivating people and making them feel good. They can range from small tales of personal triumph all the way up to much larger issues. But the common thread remains that these are feature articles focused on delivering a story in an emotional way, so as to elicit sympathy or motivation from the readers.
First, human interest stories don’t even have to be “new.” Perhaps a World War II veteran takes the time to recount some of his most harrowing experiences to a reporter. The article is published, yet the facts and story are decades old.
Human interest stories also tend to eschew the idea of significance, or rather immediate significance. The article mentioned earlier concerning a firefighter who rescues stray cats and dogs might on the surface only appear to be significant for the animals involved, while a story on the same page concerning a widespread outbreak or economic collapse would appear far more immediately significant to readers.
A human interest story is not confined by either proximity or prominence. Let’s say the firefighter is a young man you don’t know from a remote village in Southeast Asia. Yet you read his story of bravery and compassion, and it ceases to matter where and when these things occurred. The story moves you.
A reader’s emotional response is precisely why human interest stories are allowed to defy the basic conventions of newsworthiness. They touch a part of us close to our hearts, that warm thread of empathy and understanding that unites us all. Even in the face of suffering and adversity these stories reveal our eternal condition to one another. Despite the walls of difference that we build to stand between us, these stories help us to discover that we aren’t so different after all.
For a second opinion on the matter, I decided to talk with an established journalist. Cleland Thom is the former editor and director of Cleland Thom Journalism Training (CTJT) which has become one of the UK’s largest distance learning businesses. He has been a journalist since the age of 17, working on regional papers in London, as well as freelancing for all the national and Sunday newspapers, TV, and radio.
For Thom, who has written hundreds of human interest stories, they are no different than any other type of reporting. The journalist does research, asks questions, and writes down the answers.
“But human interest stories mean you must focus on personal angles,” he explains, “and get plenty of quotes. This may be hard for the interviewee, as they may have to talk about painful, traumatic issues. So you need to be sensitive in how you interview them, and how you react to them.”
For Thom, and many other journalists, the boundaries between the subject and reporter can quickly diminish when tackling stories that carry intense emotional weight.
“It’s hard to avoid getting drawn into some stories,” Thom says, “and sharing the person’s sadness. But you have to remember that you are primarily there to do a job. And, of course, not all human interest stories are sad… they can also be extremely funny.”
Unfortunately, because human interest stories are different from the rest of the lot, they have been criticized as being “soft” news, or even manipulative. Former President of the American Society of Journalists and Authors Terry Morris, who was an early proponent of the form, at one point declared that she took, “considerable license with the facts that were given to me.”
But Morris should have given a second thought to choosing a career in journalism if she couldn’t manage the basic responsibility of every journalist: getting the facts straight.
Thom disagrees with Morris as well, saying he never had to manipulate facts since they are usually strong enough to stand on their own. Additionally, Thom wouldn’t refer to human interest stories as “soft news.”
“Far from it. To me, a story about an eight-year-old girl who has beaten cancer or a grandmother who overcame a terrible fear of flying and flew a glider, these are just as valid as ‘hard’ newsbreaks like crimes,” Thom explains. “In fact when I was an editor, I found that human interest stories were far more popular with readers than the murders, fires, and stories about job losses.”
They’re more popular because, let’s be honest, who wants to read yet another depressing story? There is a fundamental difference between staying well-informed and constantly gravitating toward morbid occurrences. We’ve become a flock of depraved moths trying to inch our way closer and closer to the flames that remind us of our own mortality.
But it goes beyond an inherent penchant for the disastrous that we all share as a species. Our core providers of information–whether it be FOX News, local radio broadcasts, or even national stations–seem hell bent on mongering fear in the hearts of audiences. Look at how terrible the world is, they seem to say. You should be afraid! Be afraid to step outside of your door each and every day! Trust in our protection to keep you safe. Trust in an overbearing police force, heavy-handed justice system, and infinitely growing spider web of surveillance to keep you out of harm’s way.
But I digress. There is an antidote to all of this, and it’s quite simple: good news. There’s a whole lot of bad news, sure, but there’s also a whole lot of good news too. These “good” news stories often come to us in the form of human interest stories, because they illustrate that the struggle and suffering we share can be overcome, and that we are never alone.
According to Thom, human interest stories play an instrumental role in balancing media coverage. They offer handholds of relatability among articles containing violence and strife outside of an average person’s immediate world. While stories about war, crime, and tragedy are significant, they do not present the whole picture.
“Human interest news is important to prevent the media from giving an inaccurately pessimistic view of the world.”