2012-11-26

How Nicholas Kristof Uses His Pulpit To Engage People With Empathy

The Times reporter helps direct our attention to some of the most dire situations in the world, and hopefully makes us all more willing to do something ourselves to help change it.

A typical Facebook post from Nicholas Kristof: I’m crossing into Syria now… Any suggestions for topics I should focus on in Syria? What do you want me to ask Syrians for you?

Access isn’t a problem for Kristof; he’s as often found interviewing a suspected warlord as he is lounging on a mat in the Congo with George Clooney. Since joining The New York Times in 1984, Kristof has forced his audience to look at hard questions, with his focus on global poverty, health, and gender. As Bill Clinton said, "I am personally in his debt, as are we all."

In Daniel Metzgar’s documentary, Reporter, we see a little of the process of making difficult decisions in choosing who to profile in the Times. Does your presence on social media channels allow you to spotlight stories you couldn’t through traditional means and do you foresee a day when the impact of social media equals or surpasses?

One advantage of social media is brevity. The other night, gunmen tried to assassinate one of my heroes, a Congolese doctor and anti-rape campaigner named Denis Mukwege. If I had tried to write a column about the attack, most readers would have immediately tuned out. But they let me inflict tweets on them even if they’re not hugely interested in the topic, because I can’t entirely put them to sleep in 140 characters. So Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ enable me to toss out little updates and tidbits that don’t merit a column—or would bore people if they did—but that are part of the mosaic of modern life.

For some purposes, social media already triumphs. When I live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia, or my arrest in Bahrain, a column couldn’t compete. But I’m also a believer in the column format, and in magazine articles, and books, and videos.

Think of the way we eat. Sometimes we eat fancy four-course meals (books and magazine articles). Sometimes a regular meal (column), and often just a snack (a tweet or Facebook post). Variety is the spice of life, whether in food or in media consumption.

You often ask thoughtful questions on Facebook about current events—about a presidential speech or the progress of Malala Yousafzai (the young Pakistani girl shot for her education advocacy). Has direct, immediate engagement with your readers through social media changed your writing? Even what you write about?

I always want to avoid pandering to my readers. So I don’t want to find out that readers care about topless shoplifting celebrities and then go into that kind of reporting. But I do want to respond to reader concerns and interests where I do have some expertise, and most of all I think we need to move toward a multilateral conversation. The future of column writing, for example, won’t be 780-word column every Sundays and Thursdays. It’ll be a much more varied and iterative process: a buzz of conversation around and with a pundit.

How can activist writers best combat "compassion fatigue" in their writing?

My concern with this issue led me to the research in social psychology and neurology about how we can connect with our readers. A scholar named Paul Slovic has in particular done fascinating research in this field. To me, the lessons of this research are two-fold. First, tell an engaging individual story to suck people in. Second, show that it’s not hopeless, but that progress is possible. That was our strategy in Half the Sky.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Why is giving time different than giving money?

I think giving time is often more satisfying than writing a check. When you donate time, you see the fruits of your efforts and you’re fully engaged in the work. You’re on the front lines, and that can be very, very fulfilling.

Was there a moment that you realized your life would be dedicated to giving back, to giving more than you received? What was that moment?

There was no moment of epiphany, but in any case let me push back at the implication of your question. I haven’t been giving more than I receive. On the contrary, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and keep receiving extraordinary satisfaction from all I do. The other day, I received a lovely email from a girl in Cambodia who had been trafficked who escaped and now dreams of being a journalist. That made my day. One of the paradoxes of the modern world is that it’s really hard to be completely altruistic, because altruism brings with it such selfish pleasures. So altruism isn’t a sacrifice, but a selfish pleasure.

What does it mean to be generous?

I think generosity is about empathy, about putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Once you do that, you want to help them—with time, money, or some other kind of assistance—and you derive satisfaction from the help you can give.

Tell us the names and stories of three individuals who inspire you most with their generosity.

My parents, Ladis and Jane Kristof, certainly set a tremendous example of empathy and compassion. They never really urged me to be generous, but that was the behavior they modeled. My dad was always picking up and befriending hitch-hikers, and then sometimes bringing them home to sleep on the couch if they needed a place to stay. And my parents always made clear that we live in a global community, in which our neighbors may live across the street or in Darfur, and we should try to help all of them. That might be with a cup of flour, or perhaps with an anti-genocide petition.

The James Cameron family in Portland, Oregon, met my father when he was a World War II refugee in Paris, cleaning hotel rooms. They arranged to sponsor him to come to the United States and settle in Oregon, and they helped him go to Reed College. From their generosity, I saw first-hand that even when philanthropy doesn’t solve a global problem (like refugees) it can still be transformative for individuals who are helped and their families. Meaning me.

A lot of my fellow liberals are very skeptical or critical of humanitarian work by religious folks, while I’m much more admiring, because of some of the people I’ve met in dangerous and remote places. Eastern Congo, for example, is the scene of the most lethal conflict since World War II, and it’s also the rape capital of the world. In my reporting there, I’ve met people like Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor whose Panzi Hospital has treated 30,000 people, many of them victims of sexual violence. Mukwege has been one of the bravest advocates for rape victims in Congo, and perhaps as a result he was attacked by gunmen a few days ago; he is safe, but his bodyguard was shot dead. And Mukwege makes clear that he is inspired by his Christian faith. Likewise, in covering the Congo war, I remember visiting a little town that had been abandoned by most aid workers, where just about the only outsider left was a little Polish nun who was single-handedly feeding orphans, running a school, and trying to keep the warlord at bay. I was in awe of her: I have many quarrels with the Vatican, but she would have made a great pope.

Come back November 28 for our next piece on Mark Horvath

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