HUMAN INTEREST STORIES REVEAL THE BEATING HEART OF SOCIETY.
Blood, tears and suffering are the essence of human interest stories and they always have an emotional impact. They need to be covered even more objectively than other stories.
THE SLIGHTEST INCORRECT DETAIL CAN HAVE SERIOUS IMPLICATIONS FOR THOSE INVOLVED.
- Identify reliable sources: police and fire brigade workers, first-aiders, paramedics and other hospital staff.
- Plan a daily meeting with the workers who are most easily accessible.
- Double-check the information you are given using another source.
- Ask any witnesses available for their opinion.
- Stick to the established facts.
- Avoid bias.
- Report official statements objectively. Even if it was reported in writing, you would not write: “A car ran a red light and ran over a pedestrian.” You would instead use speculative language and stylistic discretion to write: “A pedestrian was hit and killed by a car that allegedly ran a red light according to statements made by witnesses and the police… ”
EVERYBODY CAN RELATE TO HUMAN INTEREST STORIES.
Human interest stories are sudden events that are close in all senses of the word, in terms of time, space and emotional resonance. Everyone can relate to these stories as they could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. The emotional impact of these stories must be considered when covering them.
HUMAN DIGNITY AND PRIVACY MUST BE RESPECTED.
Respecting a person’s right to privacy and dignity is an intrinsic part of the code that a journalist must follow. Journalists must therefore remain objective when covering human interest stories concerning ordinary members of the public and strike a balance between the general public’s right to be informed and the individual’s right to privacy when human interest stories are written about public figures.
- Protect the anonymity of all private individuals implicated in a human interest story. You may create drama simply by referring to someone by name in your story or accidentally disclosing a minor detail. You may cause grievous and lasting harm simply by being publicly quoted as part of a police or court investigation.
- Do not reveal the licence plate number of any car involved in a road accident.
- Do not reveal any details about a person’s private life, especially when it relates to a suicide.
- Refrain from sharing any details about sex crimes committed as it is unnecessarily voyeuristic.
- Never respond to questions such as “Who? What?” and “How?” by providing information that could implicate a specific person.
- Avoid connotations as they distort the facts. You would not write: “A Black drunk driver…” or “A Caucasian drunk driver…”. Instead, you would simply write: “A drunk driver…” because a driver’s appearance or background has no bearing on their ability behind the wheel.
- Presume that somebody is innocent until proven guilty. Regardless of whether they are in the public eye or not, anybody implicated is entitled to protection of their integrity and character, even if they are considered a suspect by a vested authority.
THE HIGHER EMOTIONS RUN, THE MORE NEUTRAL YOUR WRITING MUST BE
Whether your human interest story tackles natural disasters or crimes committed, your writing should not heighten the already strong emotions that these stories provoke. You should be reserved when covering them and avoid using epithets (such as “fatal”, “tragic”, “appalling” or “horrible”).
THE RIGHT WORDS FOR SENSITIVE TOPICS
Impartial journalism calls for the right words for the situation at hand. Although all “homicides” are “murders”, not all “murders” are “homicides”. Homicide requires malice aforethought to be considered a murder.
Manslaughter is the act of killing someone, but it can be either voluntary or involuntary. A “witness” is not the “accused”. A “suspect” is not necessarily “guilty”. And there is a difference between a “designated culprit” and someone who has been “convicted”. Any journalist writing a human interest story must become familiar with legal terminology in order to use the right words when tackling subjects for which irreversible repercussions could result from using the wrong word, as innocuous as it may seem.
Human interest stories touch on deep-seated values held in everyday life such as love, hate, friendship, betrayal, trust and distrust. They are a mirror to the world and reflect universal notions. A number of these stories stand out from the rest because they have an impact on society. They become “social trends”. A mother of a destitute family stealing food from a supermarket to feed her children would go beyond just shoplifting – it’s a window into the current state of humanity. If a young man out of work were to openly commit suicide in Africa as an act of protest, it could be a harbinger of future revolution… By becoming a social trend, the human interest story becomes a topic worthy of journalistic coverage in a report or investigation.
Nevertheless, take care! The big stories should be covered without reverting to sensational language. The hotter the story, the more important it is that the journalist remains reserved.