Media turns problems into human interest stories. An attempted assassination turns into a tragic story of the child struck down before her time; the grandmother heroically tackling the shooter; the surgeons fighting for the targeted politician's life. And, of course, a meticulous examination of everything that went wrong in the would-be assassin's life. A bidonville in a third-world city turns into an examination of a suitably doe-eyed slum child's daily struggle for existence. A threatened whale population turns into a story of a whale caught in a hole in the ice and the enormous effort of attempting to rescue it. The problems of an impoverished neighborhood become a story of one inhabitant's struggle to better himself through education and honest work, as another takes to crime, dealing drugs and hustling for position in a gang.
Human interest stories aren't all bad, of course. At their best, they can turn an abstract, hard to understand, and complex problem into something you can relate to. Human-interest stories can put a face on poverty, war, deprivation, drug abuse, corruption, or political instability. They can educate and agitate and help us make sense of the incredibly complex web of life we live in.
Usually they don't.
Instead of illustrating the larger issues it's supposedly about, the human-interest story slides into trite sentimentality and dangerous oversimplification. Instead of mobilizing us to do something about those larger problems, we may be moved to do something about the particular humans—or whales, or cute furry creatures—the story is about. Once the doe-eyed slum child is out of the slum and at school, everybody feels all nice and warm inside and can sleep peacefully, even if a hundred children just took her place, outside the frame. The bad neighborhood story will leave us feeling suitably edified about the good kid going to school, and suitably saddened, with a touch of outrage, about the one packing heat and dealing dope. Most human-interest stories aren't about what they're supposedly about at all. They're just about getting our emotional rocks off and then forgetting about it.
It's quite natural for us to latch onto these stories. A doe-eyed slum kid has a face we can relate to. Progressive taxation just feels like some corrupt politician wants our hard-earned. The kid is always more compelling. This is even more compelling if the underlying mythos is that of the self-made man; the triumphant individual in charge of his own destiny, making his fortune with grit, hard work, and determination. This combination will steer us toward simple, clear-cut explanations, and get us to reject—violently, even—any attempt to relate individual stories to social structures; they're dismissed as 'society made me do it' style abdication of responsibility.
There's no way to create a rock-hard evidential chain showing that just this particular kid wasn't actually born in a slum because of just this particular redistributive policy. We can't create such a neat chain of causation between Sarah Palin's electoral target practice and Jared Loughner's mental landscape either. The world just doesn't work in neat, clear-cut ways like that. Karma matures in complicated and unpredictable ways.
Getting caught up in a vicarious emotional storm whipped up by human-interest stories in already emotional events doesn't help. It's not compassionate, only sentimental, and it's a huge distraction that stops us from looking at the big picture; the social, political, ideological, rhetorical, tribal, and other structural features that make our society what it is.
We have way too many human-interest stories being told, and most of them are just emotional porn.