Journalist Nicholas Kristof talks compassion and media coverage of global poverty
Effective journalism is rooted in a will to stand up for the voiceless and underrepresented, according to Pulitzer-prize winning columnist and reporter Nicholas Kristof.
Courtesy of Thomas Pogge
New York Times columnist and veteran journalist Nicholas Kristof spoke to Yale students over Zoom on the evening of March 27 about a historically challenging front of journalism: poverty.
Kristof’s own education overseas and interest in writing about mass atrocity and humanitarian crises has taken him on a winding path of danger, uncertainty and discovery, from being robbed on a Ghanaian street by two drunk soldiers to witnessing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in person.
In addition to heavy reporting on human rights, with a focus on women and the impoverished, he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn are also co-authors of five books — “China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power” (1994), “Tightrope: Americans Reach for Hope,” “Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia,” “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity,” and “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” — all of which attempt to tackle global issues from a policy and solution-driven lens.
For Kristof, it is oftentimes the most difficult and imminently dangerous parts about reporting that motivate him most.
“One moment I’m feeling like I’m Ernest Hemingway getting this story, and the next moment, I don’t know if I’m going to be alive five minutes from now,” he said at the talk. “That helped keep me alive — being scared really early in my career.”
He described how some of the most eye-opening experiences he had about the most neglected regions of the world came during his Oxford days, when he used funding from the Rhodes scholarship to backpack across other countries and write about what he saw for major newspapers like the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Every trip and every difficulty became a growing experience, shedding light on the misrepresentation and bias that has come to be associated with modern journalism. Central to these flaws is a tendency among media outlets to report on specific issues well, but not going so far as to uncover the reason behind these trends or aiming to fight against them, he said.
Kristof was constantly reminded that written literature was a completely separate entity from reality during his travels and realized how dangerous and expansive misinformation was while writing about the widespread sale and distribution of heroin in Pakistan, which the United States and Pakistan had claimed great progress in reducing.
It is Kristof’s work with impoverished communities and his storytelling that Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy and international affairs, wanted his students to see when he invited Kristof on behalf of the Yale Global Justice Organization, an interdisciplinary group that examines the intersection of poverty, public health and morality.
“I am teaching a seminar on poverty, and we very much wanted Kristof’s experience and perspective to be represented in it,” Pogge wrote to the News, explaining that he wanted his students to grasp the impact of effective journalism in solving real-world challenges. “World poverty is a key research focus of mine and of the GJP.”
Kristof also spoke about the importance of rightful and deliberate sourcing, referencing poor U.S. media coverage of a devastating famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s that swept across China.
Representatives from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, along with the late Edgar Snow, an American journalist and one of the most prominent scholars of rising Chinese communism, initially failed to report a famine — and it was writers in Hong Kong who interviewed refugees from China and recorded their narratives that really brought the story to light.
“That also kind of shaped my thinking about how we cover some events, and to teach a certain skepticism that just because you were in a country talking to people doesn’t mean you necessarily have any clue what’s going on,” Kristof said. “We have to keep an open mind about everything, how it’s always more complicated than it looks.”
As time passes, new central moral dilemmas emerge that merit both discussion and action, he continued. It was slavery in the 19th century, totalitarianism in the 20th and now in the 21st, it is learning to transition to a world that is transparent and adamant on educating and uplifting women across all backgrounds, according to Kristoff, who then emphasized that the problem with successfully tackling these dilemmas is that the only people who are fighting the war are those who deeply care.
The result to Kristof is a great divide, the creation of a bubble where there isn’t “enough skepticism” and a hyperlocalization of media interest to news that the majority white American world is conscious of or find adaptable to their rigid “business models.” Currently, for instance, the U.S. has devoted extensive coverage to its interventions in Ukraine, while the Tigray War in Ethiopia, which saw even more casualties, was left to the margins of mainstream journalism.
For Kristof, equality in physical resources is not enough — the same should hold true for more abstract emotions of compassion and empathy for people of all races and socioeconomic standing.
Thalia Awari, an attendee and the founding director of a bioethics program at the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine and Medical Center, said at the event that a lack of empathy may be rooted in “not what’s happening now, [but] what has been happening for quite some time” in regards to an individual’s upbringing. She called attention to the fact that a person’s conception of where they should devote their empathy and interest potentially draws from their childhood experiences, including what movies they watched, books they read and the families they were raised in.
In response, Kristof went back full circle to the need for proper, professional press and book-writing — especially amid the invention and historical development of cheap paper — as a tool for ushering in surges of empathy. Activism, he said, is not only about protesting one’s own rights, but also drawing upon the collective momentum of peers to create a mass movement of awareness and ultimate change.
Kristof is the winner of two Pulitzer prizes, one for his co-coverage of the Tiananmen Democracy Movement in China alongside his wife and the second for his pieces on the Darfur genocides.