Introduction to the Nicholas Kristof Film Reporter

"Facing History has assembled a thoughtful, provocative syllabus...to engage students of all levels in the ideas and issues of journalism, compassion, equity, and activism."

Will Okun, Educator


In the documentary Reporter, we follow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as he works to get his readers to “care about what happens on the other side of the hill.” We see how he 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. We watch him struggle with dilemmas: How can he inform people about the larger context of genocide and other humanitarian disasters without numbing his readers’ sense of compassion? As a print journalist, how can he adapt to the changing landscape of web-based media? What is the relationship between journalism and advocacy?

For over thirty years, Facing History and Ourselves has asked the same questions that underlie Kristof’s work: Under what conditions do people care about others? When does that care translate into thoughtful action? What are the responsibilities of citizens to participate in their communities—local, national, and global? How can information be used and abused? By raising questions about the role of the reporter and the responsibility of the citizen, this documentary supports Facing History’s mission to encourage students, educators, and community members to reflect on the types of civic engagement required by a vibrant democracy. While Kristof uses the tools of journalism, Facing History uses the tools of history and the humanities to help students, educators, and community members understand the conditions that encourage us to act (or to stand by) in the face of injustice, hatred, and mass violence. The resources we publish and the professional development Facing History provides follow a sequence of study—what Facing History calls its Scope and Sequence—that helps us wrestle with questions of identity, membership, decision-making, justice, and civic participation.*

This documentary aligns with Facing History’s Scope and Sequence (see adjoining diagram) by contributing to the study of history. For example, when investigating examples of injustice, such as the Holocaust or apartheid-era South Africa, students often ask, “How could this have happened?” Watching Reporter provides us with tools we can use to confront this question, such as social science research explaining the “psychology of compassion.” By raising questions about the role of the media to intervene in stopping the genocide in Darfur or preventing violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Reporter invites us to consider the role of the press during times throughout history when human rights have been abused.  

Reporter also contributes to the final stage of Facing History’s Scope and Sequence—“choosing to participate”—which focuses on stories of individuals and groups who have tried to make a positive impact on society. By studying these examples, we begin to answer the question, “What factors encourage us to take a stand on behalf of ourselves and others?” Investigation One of this study guide explores how Kristof confronts this question in Reporter as he struggles to get his readers to care about the genocide in Darfur and the humanitarian crisis in Congo.

A picture of journalist Nicholas Kristof.

Is it the role of the reporter to inspire people to care? Should journalists try to guide their readers toward particular actions? Or is the reporter’s job limited to providing accurate information? Investigation Two examines these questions. Kristof believes in the power of journalism to galvanize people to solve the world’s problems. For example, he has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur. In Reporter, we hear actress and activist Mia Farrow explain, “It was Nick [who] sounded the clarion call. That there was a genocide unfolding in a place called Darfur. . . . It was through reading Nick’s columns that I [gained] knowledge of a situation in a place I never heard of.” Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, describes Kristof’s efforts as “relentless”:

He would find a hundred different angles into the same subject, but the central message was consistent and in its own way, repetitive. Genocide is happening and you’re not doing enough to stop it. Moreover, you have the power to stop it and that makes you doubly responsible.1

For his work writing about the genocide in Darfur, Kristof was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. While much of his work focuses on problems facing people in Asia and Africa, in his column he also draws attention to domestic issues, including heath care, poverty, and education. Most recently, Kristof and his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, wrote a book about the plight of women around the world called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide According to Kristof, they wrote Half the Sky “not so much to inform people as because we wanted to shake people up and help address these issues.”2

Nicholas Kristof follows a long line of journalists who have used their role to advocate for action and change. For decades, Ida B. Wells used journalism “as a weapon against racial bigotry.”3While best known for her articles exposing the injustices of lynching, she also wrote against Jim Crow segregation and in support of women’s suffrage. During World War I, journalists’ accounts of the mass murder of Armenians rallied the public to pressure their governments to intervene and stop the abuses. Americans reacted to these reports of suffering Armenians with one of the largest humanitarian responses in the history of the United States.4 Throughout the civil rights movement, some journalists recognized the role that the press had in furthering the cause against racial discrimination and even risked their lives to report on the civil rights struggle.5

During the civil rights movement, “the press” meant newspapers, magazines, and television. In the Internet age, the media world is far more complicated. Kristof and others refer to this changing media landscape throughout Reporter. For anyone with a cell phone or a computer, technology presents exciting opportunities to disseminate their ideas to a public audience. As a result, never before have we had as much access to information from so many sources. Acknowledging that we are living in the “most informed of times,” scholar Vartan Gregorian* wonders, “How can all of this knowledge add up to real understanding?”6Today, comprehending the words on the page or in a broadcast is no longer sufficient; we need to be able interpret media with regard to the purpose and perspective of its creators. Investigation Three of this study guide includes six different accounts of the Congo published around the same time. Comparing these texts gives us the opportunity to practice the media literacy skills that Professor Pat Aufderheide says are “a basic tool for citizenship in an Information Society.”7

Ultimately, the consequences of reporting are decided not by the journalists but by the audience. Ida B. Wells wrote hundreds of articles about lynching, but this dreadful practice continued well beyond her death. Kristof wrote dozens of columns about Darfur, yet over a million Darfuris are living in refugee camps, unable to return to their homes. Why is this? Eric Metzgar, the director of Reporter, provides one answer: “Nick won his second Pulitzer Prize for helping to put the Darfur crisis on the international radar. But the violence continues because it’s not enough for the public to simply know about a calamity, we have to care.”8  And for change to take place, we also have to act based on that caring. 

But is it the reporter’s role to tell us how to act? No, it is not, according to Metzgar. He argues:

In terms of human rights issues, I don't believe in this kind of obedient action-taking, if you will. . . . If you need to be told what to do, I don't think that that equals the sustained compassion that is required for us to really take on these issues. You know, if you really want to know what to do, it's—takes five seconds to put "Congo crisis help" into a Google search engine and then you're off. There are a million things you can do. If I tell you one thing that I would do, that directs everyone down one path. You know, you have to figure out what moves you the most and take your own path.9

Once you have identified what “moves you the most,” what can you do to help? In particular, how can media—new and old—be used as a tool to prevent injustice and violence, and also as a tool to encourage people to respond when children, women, and men are suffering? This is the question explored in Investigation Four of this study guide

Watching Reporter and using the materials in this study guide encourage us to consider how the changing landscape of journalism expands and complicates our role as creators and consumers of the news. We live in a time when technology gives each of us the opportunity to serve as reporter. What opportunities and challenges does the “democratization of media” present? How will our choices as consumers of media shape our understanding of the world? How will our choices as creators of media shape our communities, near and far?

  1. Reporter.
  2. Kristi Heim, "Half the Sky: Q+A with Nicholas Kristof,” The Seattle Times, October 9, 2009,  The Seattle Times
  3. Pamela Newkirk, "Ida B. Wells-Barnett; Journalism as a Weapon Against Racial Bigotry,” Media Studies Journal 14 (Spring/Summer 2000), accessed August 13, 2010,  Hartford Web Publishing
  4. Facing History and Ourselves, Crime Against Humanity: The Genocide of the Armenians (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 2004), 134-141.
  5. Jack Nelson, “The Civil Rights Movement: A Press Perspective,” Human Rights Magazine (Fall 2001),  Human Rights Magazine .
  6. Vartan Gregorian, foreword in Public Scholarship: A New Perspective for the 21st Century, a report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (2004), 5.
  7. “Media Literacy Definitions & Quotes,”  http://www.frankwbaker.com/Media_Lit_Quotes.html .
  8. “Transcript: Caring About Congo,” Now on PBS, February 12, 2010,  PBS .
  9. Ibid.

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