Over nearly a decade as a New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof has managed to do the impossible every week he gets away with devoting some of journalism's most valuable real estate to neglected, often depressing, causes. The Pulitzer Prize-winner has reported from 140 countries and raised awareness about Asian sex trafficking, public health crises in pre-earthquake Haiti, and the genocide in Darfur. Now he's the subject of Reporter, a documentary that premieres February 18 on HBO. TIME writer Amy Sullivan caught up with Kristof in-between his trips to Congo and the Middle East. "For some reason, I never seem to be setting off for the South of France," he jokes.
So, it does seem as if you're always on the road, reporting from somewhere far-flung. Yet in this current era of journalism, most of us are expected to report from our desks to save money.
It's true. Television in particular has largely abandoned covering the world, with the exception of a crisis here or there for a few weeks. The entire world ends up being a loser for that. The essential problem is that networks have found they can send a reporter to a place like Congo, but it's dangerous and expensive and doesn't get good ratings. If they throw a Republican and a Democrat in a room together to yell at each other, it's cheap and entertaining. We have to fight for the resources to get out and report so we can add things to the pot, not just stir up the pot.
How do you go about choosing a cause or issue on which to focus your attention?
When I got the column, I thought that I was going to be changing people's minds over breakfast. It didn't work out that way. If I write about a topic that's already on people's minds, those who start out agreeing with me think I'm brilliant and those who start out disagreeing with me think I just don't get it. The real power of the column is to make people spill their coffee, to put a new issue in front of them. I carry a huge spotlight and try to train it on a topic that's important but not on the agenda.
In the documentary, you talk about learning to adopt a dispassionate approach to reporting. Does that help or hurt when you're interviewing people who have gone through a lot of suffering?
In general, one of the advantages I have going into a place like Congo or Sudan is that I'm treated as a Martian. People are willing to tell a Martian difficult things, especially embarrassing things like rape that they would not tell a local person. In that sense, I think it probably helps. I'm always amazed and pleasantly surprised by how forthcoming people are.
Journalism is largely about finding the right story. But it was still jarring to watch you in the documentary go from village to village, trying to find someone whose suffering was dramatic enough to qualify them to be your main character.
It's really tough when you interview somebody and they describe how they've been shot or they've lost their cousin, and you say "Oh, you were only shot in the leg" or "It was only your cousin." The truth is I know that if under the next tree I find someone who was shot in the side and lost two of their children, that's the kind of story that will make readers pay attention.
There's pretty good evidence that what you need to do is to build up an emotional pathway of empathy in the brain. You can do that through a story. Once that pathway is cleared, then it will put up with a certain amount of statistics and data and information. That's why I try to find just the most compelling story I can and write it in a way that if someone will only read just the first half-sentence, they'll keep going. If they begin to feel some compassion, then one can lay out the larger picture.
Is technology making it harder or easier to engage in distance compassion?
It's definitely easier. Videos and sound really help bridge that gap. That's why I often travel with a videographer. We try to bring back some of the sights and sounds of places I go to. Half the Sky [the 2009 bestseller Kristof co-wrote with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn] also experimented with some techniques, like emphasizing individual stories and positive stories to deal with the problem that people tune out things that sound too depressing.
How much of your work is aimed at the average reader and how much are you writing for policymakers?
It's a bit of both. I want President Obama and Secretary Clinton to read it, but I also think that at the end of the day, leaders don't tend to truly lead on issues where our values are concerned; they respond to public pressure and public demand. If one could raise the salience of Congo, for example, on the national agenda, then that impels leaders to lead.
Do you think that happened with your writing about Darfur?
I would have loved it if there had been more of a reaction and more pressure put on Sudan. But I also think there are hundreds of thousands of people who are alive in Darfur who wouldn't be if it hadn't been for that public movement. It raised the costs to Sudan so that the Sudanese military or the Janjaweed couldn't attack some of the refugee camps. And it led the UN to feed some of these people and avert starvation. It didn't work nearly as well as it could have, but it was vastly better than the alternative.
If someone wants to make a difference, is it better to choose one cause and become fully invested or to send what they can to a lot of causes?
It's good to pick one issue or cause that speaks to you and then to get engaged. Write checks, sure, but maybe do more than that. If you can, go visit a project, write letters, volunteer. Really make it part of your life. When we wrote Half the Sky, we also set up Half the Sky to be a do-it-yourself toolkit for getting involved.