Journalist Nicholas Kristof
From March 21 through April 1, 2011, over 500 educators from around the world participated in an online workshop hosted by Facing History and Ourselves, entitled "Teaching Reporter in the Classroom." The workshop explored the themes and stories from the documentary Reporter, which follows New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the film, we learn how Kristof works to get his readers to “care about what happens on the other side of the hill.” We see how Kristof uses social science research and the tools of journalism to try to expand his readers' universe of responsibility - the people whom they feel obligated to care for and protect.
Facilitated by more than a dozen Facing History and Ourselves staff, the online workshop also looked at the various ways the Teaching Reporterstudy guide, film and clips from the film can be used to explore the role of the press in a digital age.
We are honored that Kristof was willing to answer some of the questions posed by workshop participants. His responses to some of those questions are shown, below.
The Reporter study guide is available for free download here.
Janine C.: Please would you comment on the role of the photographer as social activist or bystander? I am thinking in particular of the photographs that were taken during the xenophobic violence in South Africa where a man was set alight by a crowd and the photographer, who couldn't have been more than a few meters away was photographing this. How does the teacher answer the question, "Why did he/she not try to put out the fire?" Is recording the event more important than the victim? Is there a protocol that journalists and photographers adhere to and how is it justified?
Nicholas Kristof: This is a hot issue in journalism. It arose during the Vietnam War when a reporter snapped a photograph of a Buddhist monk setting himself aflame to protest the war – readers asked, “Why not stop him?” It arose during the Ethiopian famine, when a young photographer won a Pulitzer for capturing a famous photo of a small child with a vulture in the background – readers asked, “Why not help the child?” And the issue certainly arose in the last few days when a woman named Eman al-Abeidi was dragged out of a Libya hotel after telling reporters she had been raped and tortured by security forces – readers wondered, “Why didn’t all those reporters defend her and stop the security goons?”
My own answer, and I think that of most journalists, is that there’s no special journalistic principle involved. You’re a human first, a journalist after. In the case of the Buddhist monk, the reporter knew that this was a calculated, well-thought out protest, not an impulsive act, and he thought it would be patronizing to intervene. I think maybe I buy that. But in other circumstances, I would reach for the fire extinguisher rather than my camera. As for the starving child, the photographer said that he had indeed taken the child into a feeding center after snapping the photo. And in Libya, some journalists were busy snapping photos but others did intervene and one was expelled from Libya for doing so.
In Darfur and elsewhere, I’ve often used my vehicle to take people to hospitals when there’s no other transportation available. But you have to be careful, because you may then be perceived as taking sides in a way that puts not only your own life at risk but also that of your driver and interpreter. And attempting to slow down an angry mob is a risky business as well, and plenty of journalists have been badly beaten up for trying.
In our book China Wakes, Sheryl and I describe doing something that went profoundly against journalistic professionalism. A 19 year old student had gotten in trouble for helping us cover the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, and he wound up in prison and then escaped and asked us for help fleeing the country. We agonized over our responsibilities to him and to The New York Times. After all, journalists are not supposed to help escaped felons flee the country. But in the end we did help him, and he did reach the United States safely. And it may have been unprofessional, but it was the right thing to do.
John E.: In Reporter and in your column, you discuss the question of how do we get people to care? I'm interested in that same question applied to the work you do/decisions you make. In a 2005 op-ed piece you wrote about Darfur, you talked about a point made by Senator Paul Simon. You wrote: "Senator Paul Simon said that if only 100 people in each Congressional district had demanded a stop to the Rwandan genocide, that effort would have generated a determination to stop it."
As a columnist for the New York Times, your words carry a huge impact and influence on so many. I can only imagine that you are constantly getting contacted by people around the world who hope you will write about their causes. What influences you to choose the topics/stories to write about that you choose? If "100 people" send you e-mails about X, as opposed to just 1 e-mail, are you more likely to stand up and take notice?
Nicholas Kristof: I’m deluged with requests from people asking me to write about one injustice or another, and I can only address a small number. I look, first, for an issue that concerns a lot of people – so I’d be much less likely to write about one innocent prisoner than about a larger scale problem. I also look for an issue that people don’t know about but that if they did, they would be moved. Fistulas, sex trafficking, Darfur and Congo all fit into that rubric to some degree. On the other hand, I’ve written much less about AIDS, because it’s something that people already know about, so it’s harder to make a difference.
Lizanne F.: What would you say to a student who says she does not understand how someone can just stand and take a photograph of an unfolding atrocity and not throw down the camera and help in some way? I was recently confronted by this question from a student and I do not feel that my response was adequate at all. I think I said something about the importance of being a witness and the importance of informing the wider public but she did not seem satisfied with what I said. What would you have said? And thank you so very much for what you do to shine light into the dark spaces of our world and of our humanity.
Nicholas Kristof: As I mentioned in an earlier response, I think sometimes it is worth putting down the camera and diving in. But it’s also important to know that bearing witness is often a far more effective way of saving lives than helping in more direct ways. Indeed, I wish that aid groups were more effective in their story telling and thought more about advocacy, because that would help people a great deal. For example, in Darfur lots of aid groups were helping rape victims after the fact. But Doctors Without Borders actually issued a report about mass rape that called attention to the problem – and that report probably did more good for the women of Darfur than the medical services they were providing, because it embarrassed the Sudanese government and raised the costs of a policy of rape.
I’ve seen again and again that shining a light on a problem is often the first step to a solution. Usually what we lack is not so much the technical means to make a difference, but the political will. Me? I’m in the political will business.
Amy L.: In your opinion, what is the most effective way to teach compassion? Or is it even teachable? I would agree the first step is to expose people to the truth which they otherwise would not know. However, is it enough? How do we get people to go beyond sentiments? And when they do act, how can they realize that they should not only help victims, but also look into the cause of that injustice, and try to eliminate that cause? What should be the core elements of a humane education? What can end the sufferings and atrocities of this world? Coming from a nation that was troubled by civil wars and foreign invasions for thousands of years, these are the questions I constantly ask myself. I would appreciate it if you could shed light on them with your insight.
Nicholas Kristof: This is a great question, and I don’t know the answer for sure. But my hunch is that empathy and compassion can be taught to some degree by personalizing victims. Anti-bulling programs seem to have some success in that regard. And the diary of Anne Frank probably did more to chip away at anti-Semitism than all the stern warnings against bigotry.
I also think that the best way to build compassion is to get students to encounter suffering directly in ways that make it real. That means getting students out of the classroom to prisons or poor neighborhoods, or at least into encounters with real people who put a human face on various problems. This is one reason why I’m a huge fan of getting students to travel abroad. I’m a fervent believer in high school students taking a gap year after high school and before college, and I don’t understand why high schools and colleges don’t encourage it more. It’s far cheaper than a year of college (and can involve a job teaching English to bring in money), leads to great language skills and makes the world real. My eldest son is doing a gap year right now, mostly in China with a dollop of South America thrown in as well. He deferred college admission for a year, and he’ll reach college with more maturity – and, I’ll bet, more compassion.
Brooke K. (student): As a reporter, is there an indicator as to the amount of passion you put into your writing? I have read some very different articles by you and I was wondering how you know when to stay distant in your writing and when it is necessary to bring the human element? Is it a case-by-case study or is there a clear indicator for you?
Nicholas Kristof: The challenge is to feel passion and outrage without losing your skepticism. Over the years, for example, I’ve learned that victims of human rights abuses lie and exaggerate as much as perpetrators do. It’s very easy if you’re passionate and outraged to listen to victims and not double-check and triple-check and listen to the other side – or to get defensive when you’ve taken the victims’ side and not investigate charges that you’ve gone too far.
Another problem is that do-gooders with the best of intentions often aren’t very successful. And so if I’m writing about a really good person who is sacrificing a great deal to work in, say, the Central African Republic, there’s a temptation not to push too hard and assume that they’re doing heroic work (instead of heroically doing third-rate work). Skepticism is a hugely important tool.
Lisa L-B.: I am an avid reader of your column, and my students were inspired by Reporter and your columns. We viewed your film after reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and watching Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk on "The Danger of a Single Story." Perhaps because of this framing, I became concerned about the "single story" of Africa that you are sharing with the world. Of course I understand that you are trying to make your readers care about the crimes against humanity that are occurring in these countries. Do you struggle with trying to create a balance between highlighting the inhumanity while still trying to provide a more complete picture of these countries and the people who live in them?
Nicholas Kristof: This is something I worry about all the time. I sometimes fear that a close reader of my column would assume that Africa is mostly composed of villagers being slaughtered in Sudan, women being raped in Congo, children starving in Sierra Leone, or kids dropping out of school in Zimbabwe. We in the news media always cover planes that crash, not planes that take off, but that only works if you have some general knowledge of aviation. Otherwise, you’d read newspapers and never get in a plane – or never go near Africa.
On the other hand, the most urgent stories to write in Africa do involve poverty, disease, genocide. When we look back in 50 years, our biggest regret will be that we under covered Congo, not that we under covered the tech industry in Ghana.
My own approach is to periodically try to provide context – a variant of “most planes take off successfully.” On the trip that was the basis for “Reporter,” I planned the win-a-trip journey through Congo and Burundi because they were hugely needy countries but we also started and ended in Rwanda because it’s an Africa success story that provided a different window into Africa.
Lisa D.: Please share a few links to articles about genocide and/or crimes against humanity in the 20th or 21st century that you think would be "right on" for high school junior and seniors who care about the world in which we live and are ready and able to learn and share.
Nicholas Kristof: I try to share links on these kinds of topics regularly on my Facebook fan page (www.facebook.com/kristof) and Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/NickKristof). I’d also search the Enough Project and Genocide Intervention Network.
Mary H.: I want to thank you for what you do. I love following your twitter posts; they help me feel connected to people in the world - not just events. I have two unrelated questions for you.
1) In bringing this film to a classroom in the fall, there was a rich discussion around your compassion that is very clear, but at the same time your professionalism--being able to witness horrible things without it breaking you down (at least not on camera). How do you balance or reconcile those two elements in the way you approach a story? What would you recommend to students who often start with stories that hit very close for them emotionally?
2) In the last month, from your twitter posts, you have seemed to bounce around so much - and stay connected to people in countries that you aren't currently in. I wonder: how do you choose which countries to go to and when? Why Bahrain, for example, at the points you have entered the country, versus Yemen, Egypt, or others? Do you try to get back to certain countries on a regular basis or timetable to keep those stories alive for those of us who don't travel as much?
Nicholas Kristof: On the first question, remember that as a reporter you see terrible, terrible things – but also wonderfully inspiring examples of human courage and resilience. The best of humanity is usually found side by side with the worst. So I sometimes am enraged by what I encounter and “lose it,” but more often I manage to return from Sudanese killing fields or Cambodian brothels inspired and reassured by some amazing human beings struggling to make a difference.
On the second question, I look for a place where my spotlight will make a difference – but also where I can get in. The dirty little secret is that our travel and coverage is often dictated to a considerable degree by practical questions. For example, when I went to Bahrain I had hoped to go to Yemen – but couldn’t get a visa. I thought about going to Ivory Coast, but the only way to get in is to go first to Senegal and sit around there waiting for a visa that might or might not come through, and I didn’t want to risk wasting the time. Likewise, I thought that human rights abuses in Bahrain were particularly worth covering because the United States has very close ties with the Bahrain king and we have lots of influence there. There’s not much point in denouncing North Korean abuses, because Kim Jong Il doesn’t care what I write, but the king of Bahrain really does. And maybe if I can make him spill his coffee in the morning, he’ll be less likely to shoot protesters or torture dissidents.