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12. Human-interest stories

What room should there be for such stories?  This question is often at the center of heated discussions. Most of the time it opposes the mass media and their more elitist counterparts. The answer should be obvious: they are part of everyday life. They’re just as natural as politics, economics, and culture. A “truth sayer” can’t ignore them. But they engineer instant reactions. The real trick is in knowing how to cover them.

Human-interest stories are at the heart of our societies

They’re made of blood, tears, and pains. They’re always emotional upheavals. As such, they must be covered extremely carefully and with the proper dissociation.

Even the tiniest imprecision can have negative consequences for the people involved

  • Identify trustworthy sources: the police, the firemen, the ambulance drivers, the first-aid workers, and hospital spokespeople… 
  • Plan a daily meeting with those that are most available 
  • Double-check your information
  • Ask the witnesses for their opinion
  • Stick to the established facts
  • Don’t take a stand
  • Keep your distance with regards to official write-ups. Don’t write, “A car ran a red-light and ran over a pedestrian”. Write, using a few stylistic precautions: “A pedestrian was hit and killed by a car, that, according to witnesses and the police, supposedly ran a red light.”

Everybody can relate to human-interest stories

They’re at the crossroads of all proximities: geographical, temporal, and affective. They might occur at any time, any place, and affect anybody. The coverage should take into account their impact.

Respect human dignity and privacy

Respecting an individual’s right to privacy and dignity is an integral part of a journalist’s work ethic. As such, the journalist must keep his cold when treating human-interest stories that involve ordinary people and draw a line between the general public’s right to be informed and the right to privacy when human-interest stories involve public figures.

7 imperatives

  1. Protect the anonymity of the people involved in human-interest stories. A simple indiscretion, or the divulgation of a tiny detail might provoke a catastrophe. The simple fact of being publicly quoted in the context of a police investigation can cause grievous and lasting damages.
  2. Don’t give out license plates of the cars involved in a collision.
  3. Don’t expose the private life of people, especially in cases of suicides.
  4. Don’t give out details when it comes to sex crimes, it only feeds a certain voyeuristic side.
  5. Don’t personalize the answers to the 5Ws.
  6. Avoid connotations. They denature the facts. Don’t write “An African drunk driver” or “a European drunk driver”. Write “a drunk driver”, because a driver’s origins have no impact on the way he drives.
  7. People are innocent until proven guilty. Whether they’re public figures or individuals, they have a right to have their honor protected. Don’t defame their character even if the police or justice regards them as suspects.

The higher emotions run, the most neutral you should be

Be they natural catastrophes or odious crimes, human-interest stories induce emotions that you shouldn’t heighten through writing tricks. Be sober. Avoid epithets such as “tragic”, “awful” or “odious”.

Sensitive topics, right words

To be impartial you must used the appropriate words for precise situations. All “murders are “homicide” but not all “homicides” are “murders”. A murder is premeditated. A “homicide” is the fact of killing a man, but it can be “premeditated” or “unpremeditated”. A “witness” is not an “accused”. A “suspect” is not necessarily “guilty”. Before writing the journalist must familiarize himself with judicial vocabulary, because he’s covering news where using the wrong word might have irreversible repercussions.

“Social trends”

Covering human-interest stories affects deep-seated values of everyday life: love, hate, friendship, betrayal, trust, and mistrust… There are both a reflection and a mirror of universal notions. Some of these stories have a sociological impact that lifts them right out of the common lot. They become “social trends”. A penniless mother who steals food from a supermarket to feed her children, that’s more than theft; it’s an actual statement about human condition. A young man out of work killing himself in Africa might be the first inkling of a revolution to come. By becoming a social trend, the human-interest story enters the field of the report or the investigation. But be careful: don’t mix up covering what matters and being sensationalistic. The hotter the news, the calmer you must be.