A Human Interest Story is a type of news story that focuses on a person, group of people, and/or culture in an emotional manner. The goal is to create an empathy between the audience and the subject matter, often with the intent to garner sympathy and/or awareness in the process.
There are a couple forms a human interest story may take. The most common is the "story behind the story" approach, which takes a fairly pivotal moment in history and focuses on one or more of the background people. For example, a story about a woman whose husband was in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 would be a human interest story. Another approach is to find somebody with an interesting but otherwise historically unimportant story and do an exposé on them.
The most visible approach, however, is to aim for some controversial topic in the hopes of motivating the audience towards an action. An example would be an article on a minority family living in fear of a local white supremacist gang. Through the lens of a group of people, the article would also be aiming to raise awareness of a social wrong and trying to urge the audience towards an action (in this case, pressuring police to crack down on the gang).
While the term is inherently neutral, it has still gained quite a negative stigma over the years. The label usually only comes up when denouncing a story as emotionally manipulative, Pandering to the Base, and often veering towards Glurge. Within the journalism community, human interest stories are viewed with disdain and people who specialize in them as not really being "true" journalists. Editors have a love-hate relation, since a human interest story helps bring more readers/viewers in through word of mouth but tends to not reflect well on their integrity. As such, human interest stories tend to be given much less priority in terms of placement within the newspaper/magazine/show. It's a slow news day when a human interest story makes the headline. However, the priority is also regionally affected, as these are more common and accepted in some parts of the world then in others.
Contrast If It Bleeds, It Leads, which is when the humans are of secondary interest to the grisly details surrounding their demise. When a Ridiculously Cute Critter is involved, it's Yet Another Baby Panda.
Examples of human interest stories in real life would be much too numerous to list and also potentially controversial in assessment, so the examples section will concern itself with appearances in fiction.
- In the 1951 film Ace in the Hole, reporter Chuck Tatum creates a Human Interest Story for himself; when he hears about a man trapped in a collapsed cave, he deliberately prolongs his rescue by manipulating the local authorities, just so he can report on it and restore his career.
- An editorial meeting portrayed in All the President's Men mentioned making space for a human interest story.
- The core of the film Titanic (1997) is a Human Interest Story. The broad strokes of the greater event are detailed quickly early on, but Rose is adamant that it isn't "the real story." The real story centers around her and Jack, natch...
- Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was purely about a human interest story without any of the more serious news. Though it is justified due to it being a parody and a literal case of Yet Another Baby Panda.
- Played for Laughs in Run Fatboy Run; one particularly overemotional reporter covering the marathon gets so caught up in Dennis' heartwarming story that he ends up reporting solely on that. Not that there's much else to report on, as everyone else has crossed the finish line while Dennis is still hobbling along on a sprained ankle, determined to cross the finish line.
Reporter: And, what's that? [overjoyed] He's got a son! I didn't know he had a son! Did you know he had a son!?
- In Monstrous Regiment William de Worde chases all over Borogravia reporting on the war and his human interest stories change public opinion about the war and guarantee that Borogravia will have food and supplies through the winter.
- Parodied earlier in The Truth, where William finds himself explaining to the Patrician that you need "human interest" stories in order to get people to read the stories that are "in the public interest". The Patrician wonders if this means humans and the public are different people. As de Worde puts it, what's in the public interest and what the public's interested in don't necessarily overlap.
- These are at the core of the John Grisham novel The Last Juror. It was a story on a black family that boasted five college graduates that made the newspaper profitable, and, by the end of the book, the protagonist had done such a story on every person in town.