The following is an excerpt from Brooke Gladstone’s interview with Nicholas Kristof on the public radio program On the Media (December 2009).
Listen to the audio recording of this interview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you wrote in Outside Magazine recently that you had a revelation when it came to covering Darfur in 2004, but it was coming back that opened your eyes to coverage of Pale Male.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: That's right. At the same time that I was so frustrated by the lack of response to genocide, I found a cause that New Yorkers really could rally around, and that was the eviction of a red-tailed hawk called Pale Male. The building in which he was living had taken down his nest, and New Yorkers were galvanized. And I was just thinking, you know, if only we could get as much indignation and action to prevent genocide as we could about a homeless red-tailed hawk. And that kind of got me thinking about how one can make that connection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so you looked at some recent research about what moves us, information that’s a big part of marketing.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I came across social psychologist Paul Slovic, who has done a great deal of work in this area, and the experiments typically involve exposing people to a particular scenario and then seeing if they will contribute. One of the classic experiments involves a seven-year-old girl from the country of Mali who’s starving and asking if people will help her out. Everybody wants to help Rokia. But if you ask people to help 21 million hungry people in Africa, nobody particularly wants to help them. Maybe what I found even more depressing is that the moment you even provide more background information [on] Rokia, if you say that she is hungry because of a famine in her country, then interest in helping her tends to drop. You know, we all know that at some point people tend to get numbed and tune out, but one of the things that I found fascinating was the number at which we tend to tune out. It’s not a million, it’s not a thousand, it’s not even a hundred—it’s two.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two! It was just amazing to me to read that. You've got starving little Rokia. You add her starving brother, and people are less likely to support.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: That's right. Even though people are very generous in supporting either Rokia or the boy, Moussa, the moment you put them together, they're less willing to help just two seven-year-old kids. And, you know, so the moment we start talking about hundreds of thousands, people’s eyes just glaze over. . . .
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you finesse a story that might not end happily? Because, obviously, you’re an advocacy journalist; you report not just to report but to spur action. . . . So you've been writing that these sorts of rules—an emphasis on individuals rather than groups, not worrying so much about context, putting the spotlight on positive stories—that these are being heeded by companies trying to sell soap more than they are by philanthropic organizations.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: You know, at the end of the day I think humanitarians really feel very awkward and embarrassed about marketing, but it really doesn't matter whether a shampoo gets better marketing. It does matter when a famine or a huge crisis is—well, I hate to use the [term] “marketed better,” but, you know, is publicized in a way that will be more effective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you seen a product with no social significance be marketed according to these rules?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Sure. I mean, any time you see a shampoo, for example, being marketed, it’s not based on the fact that, you know, 38 percent of adults have shinier hair when they use this product. It’s about, you know, one particular person who—wow, she looks better and she’s going to get a better date or whatever it may be. It’s these individual stories that feel kind of empowering and heartwarming. I mean, one of the challenges for me, frankly, is that if you follow this research, then you would leave out context. All you would do would be telling individual stories, and that would be one step too far for me. I do want to connect with people and inform them about these larger problems. So my compromise is that I do try to find a story that will resonate with people. But then at that point I try to throw in the larger context, the background information, and make it clear, in the case of the Congo, for example, how many millions of people are affected and hope that doesn't deter the power of that individual story. . . .
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that you flinch when you get called an advocacy journalist, but when you sit down to write a column, what is it that you’re trying to achieve?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah. Well, I'm advocating. But I'm reluctant to be called out on it. My career was as a reporter, and there’s an uncomfortable tension there, because one of the reasons that I became a journalist is, frankly, that I wanted to make a difference. And yet, at the same time, there is sometimes a perception that an advocate is somebody who goes out and finds evidence to buttress their preexisting convictions. And that’s why I flinch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you can tell the truth and still want to spark a particular action.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yes, absolutely. That is one of the great perks of journalism, that there are a lot of problems in the world and that we carry a spotlight. What I want to do is shine my light to illuminate that problem, but I don't want to tinker with the evidence. I just want to galvanize people by showing them what is out there.
Source: "Follow For Now, " Interview with Nick Kristof, On the Media, WNYC, December 11, 2009.