People are news. News is people.
Two recent stories illustrate this vividly. The rescue of the Chilean miners was such a personal tragedy-turned-triumph that even on the other side of the world we felt we knew the miners. The papers ran their photographs and their own individual stories so that when they emerged from the rescue tunnel, they seemed familiar figures, welcomed back by us all. Chilean politicians knew it, and used it.
A different story, with no happy ending but stories of immense humanity, is the inquest into the London 7/7 bombings. Daily, the court is hearing heart-stopping, heart-breaking stories of courage from rescuers and the rescued.
Both are highly significant stories in their own right – of mine failure and of terrorist atrocity. But it is the people involved who help us understand the scale of such events and their impact on lives.
Too often, those interviewed by the media lose sight of that human element, and as a result often weaken and dilute the points they want to make. Even revered news organisations have at times made the mistake of turning their cameras and microphones away from real people.
During the 1987 election campaign, when I was presenting the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News, the newsroom, under the director-generalship of John Birt, became obsessed with issues, losing sight completely of the human stories that can light up an election campaign. I remember interviewing homeless teenagers, to get their views on the election and its relevance, if any, to their situation. When their outspoken views were broadcast, there were murmurs of approval and surprise that we were hearing the voices of “real people”.
Almost every story, every issue, every corporate response can be best expressed in human terms. For example, in all the debate about the deficit and the need to reduce it, we hear little about why reducing that deficit is important for ordinary people. Similarly, we know there is a pensions crisis, but we can understand it more easily if we hear individual stories. In the same way, a CEO announcing job losses must acknowledge the personal pain they are causing.
Even if a corporate spokesperson ignores the human angle, the media – print and broadcast – will highlight it. After all, when did you last see an attention-grabbing photograph of an “issue”?