“He is prepared to do the thing that is the hardest for many people in writing. He is prepared to be predictable; he’s prepared to be repetitive. When we look back at the Holocaust, we don’t say to ourselves, ‘Oh, gosh, can you believe so-and-so wrote 20 redundant columns on the extermination of Europe’s Jews?’ If it’s happening every day, it deserves to be written about every day.”
So said Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, in an interview for the new HBO documentary "Reporter." The film, which will premiere tomorrow evening on HBO, shadows New York Times columnist Nick Kristof on assignments around the world, focusing on his work in eastern Congo.
The winner of two Pulitzers, Kristof is best known for his reporting on human rights abuses in Africa and Asia. Though the world is becoming increasingly connected through international institutions and technology – raising the expectation that people on one side of the globe will respond to the suffering of people on the other – journalism is evolving in a manner that leaves fewer reporters in positions to provide firsthand accounts of stories off the beaten path. Nick Kristof is one of the few, certainly in terms of prominence and number of followers.
Kristof’s strategy, repetitive though it may be, is to zoom in on one person at a time, telling an individual story to illustrate the regional or global problem, rather than focusing on the incomprehensible statistics that readers often gloss over. The numbers are there, but the intimacy with which he tells the stories helps put a name and a face on the suffering, increasing the chances that readers will be moved to respond. The logic behind Kristof’s method lies in the work of Dr. Paul Slovic, who studied the psychology behind when people react to atrocities, and found that people begin to lose interest when they are asked to care about the suffering of even two people, rather than one.
Kristof has been criticized for what some disapprovingly call ‘advocacy journalism’ because his columns often lay out conclusions for readers and encourage them to channel their frustration/rage/surprise/grief over what they’ve read into meaningful action. But after witnessing the international community’s deficiencies when it comes to responding to humanitarian crises, endemic sexual violence, mass atrocities, and genocide, Kristof makes clear that he isn’t interested in simply reporting the facts to inform, but to impact and improve the situation.
A case in point: In one scene of the documentary, Kristof advises a young American medical student traveling with him in eastern Congo about her role as doctor to a severely malnourished woman they encounter. The med student says that she feels conflicted about whether to tell the young woman’s story, and Kristof suggests, “I think it’s worth writing about it, because you can end up saving an awful lot more people if you call attention to the problems than if you… This woman may or may not be saved, but there have been four million people just like her.”
The documentary "Reporter" by Eric David Metzger will air tomorrow night on HBO at 9:30 p.m. To learn more about the conflict in Congo and view other resources related to the film, visit RAISE Hope for Congo.
Photo: A woman walks past Congolese soldiers (AP)