To the world, every reporter’s job is to primarily sniff terrible things that are hidden from view. There is no denying that alarming stories grab attention. Given the demands on the column space of a newspaper, human-interest stories are sometimes given a go-by in print.
Apart from the passion to write, every journalist has an innate interest in people and perhaps knows when and how to highlight them. But the challenge is also to convince a boss why, for instance, Kanthimathi, who feeds the lonely and the poor daily in Madurai or the many unsung heroes in corners of the country who try to make the world better without any incentive are important stories.
This is not to undermine any news or event, because each has its own importance. The old newsroom saying — if it bleeds, it leads — perhaps still holds true, but what is truer is that people seek human-interest stories too. Off and on, strong human-interest stories have tugged at the heart strings and set the news agenda. My experience makes me believe a good one always has the power.
A ‘no story’ that became famous
I remember the year clearly because 9/11 had happened and even after two months our newsroom chats continued to centre around one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever seen and the trail of grief it left. It was a winter evening and a scrawny-looking man walked into the Delhi office of The Hindu requesting coverage for the free coaching centre he was setting up in Patna for poor children. He said the children dreamt of joining the IITs, and the josh in them was unmistakable. He was upset that most city newspapers had turned him away. They wanted him to prove himself first. I cannot pinpoint what it was: perhaps it was his frailty or the earnestness in his voice and eyes that made me offer him a seat and listen to his story.
The story was about the man, whose proficiency in math got him a seat at Cambridge University. But he had to give it up because his father did not have enough money to send him. The young man had a burning desire to keep his love for the subject alive and a determination to not let money come in the way of children keen to join higher institutions of learning.
Who knew then what Anand Kumar had ahead of him? My three paras on him may have not done wonders, but some donations came his way and with help from elsewhere too, Anand Kumar took off. ‘Super 30’ was a dream for him and the children he embraced were from Bihar’s interiors. The rest is history.
In 2019, when the Hindi film, Super 30, based on his life, was released, I wrote about the man again, who had now become famous. He surprised me by tweeting that he remembered our first meeting when he had no money. It was perhaps the connection I had with him that made him, the subject of a ‘no story’ in 2001, powerful, and 18 years later, enjoyable.
When journalists focus on people doing remarkable things hidden from view, the impact doesn’t pass them by. The story makes a difference. Often, we read about terminally ill patients catching the public imagination with their bucket lists and help pouring in. This is because the human-interest story has the power to move readers.
Multiple studies – at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Southampton and Texas – have shown that stories reinforcing faith in human nature are discussed and shared more, have positive engagement and more reach. News stories with a hopeful ending leave readers feeling informed and motivated to take positive action whereas typical news stories result in people feeling depressed, helpless, anxious and pessimistic.
We still hear the old axiom, good news is no news. But good news is also about a better tomorrow and travels faster in today’s world.