"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


people, not characters

This comment on yesterday's post, from reader Shona, sums up the problem with Kristof's writing better than I ever could:
Why shouldn't he write about the most compelling character he can?

Because he should be writing about people not characters.

Having lived in Eastern Congo for 3 years, I read Kristof's anecdotes about people there, and cringe because they are exactly what you say, characters and not people. When a journalist decides to cover a complex conflict through the stories of individual people, I hope he is choosing the people he features based on more than whether they got shot in one leg or two.

Kristof appears to choose his subjects solely based on the one who will make the most dramatic and emotional first impression. Yet he should be acting as a journalist, not as a tv advertiser creating a 15 second commercial. Indeed he rarely seems to go beyond first impressions in his articles. The Congolese people have amazing, complicated, and thought-provoking life-experiences, and have complex views on the current conflict. This is true of all Congolese people, not just the ones who have been shot in both legs or who are 9 years old.

Kristof appears to go to Eastern Congo and look for that image of a person who best fits his understanding of what it means to suffer and be victimized, and who can reflect that image in a short paragraph description.

This approach will do little to truly report on the situation or to aid our understanding of it. But it does get a large audience to tune in,and listen to Kristof's personal views about the conflict, and I guess that is what he is aiming for.
I take a lot of heat for disliking Kristof's writing. Most commenters argue that we should excuse Kristof's sensationalism of victims of injustice since he has such a wide reach. "Isn't it better that more people are aware of the crisis?" they argue.

Not if their awareness is based on falsehoods or incomplete truths. Kristof's job as a reporter is to explain the parts of the world that the vast majority of his readers will never see. By always, only reporting on the worst of the worst, Kristof distorts reality. He may tell one person's story, but as Shona points out, it's not really even that person's full story. In doing so, readers get an inaccurate picture of what life is like in the eastern Congo, the southern Sudan, or, I'd venture to guess, the brothels of India.

Bad facts lead to bad policy. This is why journalists' sacred trust with the public is so important. Policy makers - most of whom will never go to or have a full understanding of these areas - read their stories. Because Kristof's reach is so broad and because his columns run in one of the most important papers in the world, he does a terrible disservice to the very people he purports to help. Mr. Kristof, it's time to show your subjects for what they are: people.

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Anonymous K. L. Maxwell said...

I really enjoy your blog and have been avid reader for several months now. I really appreciate that you have the where with all to spot and then explain these sorts of inadequacies. As someone interested in development and hoping to pursue a career in it it's nice to have your blog as an articulate place to point people who think I'm heartless because I think its silly to walk around in no shoes for a day.

Friday, April 16, 2010 10:10:00 AM

Anonymous Tom Haslett said...

I agree with basically everything you write about Kristof, and have many of the same problems with his writing that you do (especially this ongoing silliness of the teachers abroad). However, I wonder about the 'sacred trust' that he's supposed to uphold as a journalist: He's in full-time columnist mode now which means he's a different breed of writer. I would think he should be as honest as possible (i.e., avoid outright lies), but his role is to shape a debate rather than presenting the facts as a fully disinterested observer. It's totally true that there are people who will read his column and consider him an authoritative voice on whatever subject he's writing about, but I'd have trouble blaming that on him. I have no problem criticizing as fools people who would use George Will's columns to justify skepticism of climate change; I can't really hold Kristof's readers to a lower standard. I do still think he's a useful punching bag for hating on the generalized and willful ignorance of the public and some policy makers about serious and seriously concerning problems.

Friday, April 16, 2010 10:10:00 AM

Blogger Emily said...

Well said. It's interesting, though - I'm honestly not sure if he sees things as superficially as he writes them, or if he just has an utter lack of faith in his readers to comprehend anything besides stark horror. I think he's probably capable of much better than the titillating stuff he churns out, but for whatever reason - maybe because he's taken on the mantle of Mr. Awareness, or maybe he's just lazy - he sticks to the sensational and simplistic.

He often alludes to how complicated and nuanced the conflicts and issues he covers are, but rarely attempts to explain the complexities, favoring instead a shameless bid for the heartstrings. It's manipulation. His writing is the journalistic equivalent of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Friday, April 16, 2010 10:26:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Tom, I think that's a fair criticism of my point of view. But surely he is aware that people consider him an authoritative voice. If he is, then shouldn't he report as though that were true?

Friday, April 16, 2010 12:22:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would agree that Kristof is capable of better but is tripped up by misconceptions about what makes his messages persuasive. Ultimately he not only underestimates his audience but also the vulnerable whose cause he has taken up. It is sad that after reading his column, what sticks in my mind is Kristof himself, not the people whose story he tells. More than awakening the consciousness of the world, his column has been most effective in building the Kristof brand (whether he intended to or not). How much better he would be if he could give up some of the spotlight and let the voices of others shine through on his page.

Friday, April 16, 2010 12:25:00 PM

Anonymous ED said...

I think you're being a little too harsh on Kristof. Almost everyone who has ever practiced professional journalism, whether they'd admit it or not, has done exactly what he describes.

Kristof doesn't use the word character - he says he's looking for the best story. And that's what journalists do. There's no evidence the personal stories he tells are distorted or exaggerated. And if they're true and honestly told, how exactly is he treating his subjects as anything less than people?

Sure, cherry picking the worst of the worst doesn't give the whole story, but I think readers are intelligent enough to realize that not everyone in Sudan has been shot in both legs just because he writes about one person who has. But those things - or brutal rape in the Congo, or sexual slavery in India - do happen, and they deserve to be written about. News is what's unusual, and Kristof lays it on thicker than most because his job as an opinion columnist is to use these stories to advocate a cause rather than recounting them as a quasi-objective reporter. I'm not a fan of all his writing - the tone does tend toward the melodramatic, and he can come off a bit too self-satisfied - but he's using true stories to bring attention to real issues that don't get enough of it, and I don't see what's wrong with that,

Friday, April 16, 2010 12:37:00 PM

Blogger shona congo said...

Ed, you are right that the term character didn't come from Kristof. My comment was reposted from its original location where I was responding to Nick's comment which asked "why wouldn't he(Kristof) find the most compelling character he can?" So that is where the term came from.

Also, I agree that an opinion columnist has a somewhat different responsibility than a reporter who is writing a regular news article.

However, I do believe that Kristof portrays the people in his columns more as emotionally compelling characters than as real people, and I do believe this is the wrong approach even for an opinion columnist. You say "There's no evidence the personal stories he tells are distorted or exaggerated", however he consistently chooses extremely horrific stories of Congolese victims. Being a victim is never a full representation of any person, and is certainly not the full truth of an entire region. Congolese women are victims of rape all too often, but many of those same women have other stories to tell as well, stories in which they are proud mothers, stories in which they go to incredible lengths to provide for their families, stories in which they laugh and celebrate. Yet Kristof is not looking for those stories and does not generally include them in his descriptions.

When a journalist is looking only for the most heartwrenching and horrific stories, he unfortunately may never get to hear those very same people tell of other parts of their lives. And, yes, this ultimately leads to distortion. It is important not only what stories we tell about others, but what questions we ask and what stories we stop to listen to. A journalist has a responsibility to reflect people as accurately and completely as possible.

People in Congo pay attention to what questions visitors ask and what stories they want to hear. If we only are looking for the stories of victims, these become the stories that we teach people to tell about themselves. And this is helpful to neither them nor us.

Congolese women deserve to have other questions asked of them and other stories told. Not because the rape doesn't matter but because other things do. I know that Kristof believes he can motivate Americans better with simple stories of victims, but I think he has it wrong. By portraying people only as victims they become distorted. I worry deeply that they become less human to us and their suffering becomes less real, not more.

Friday, April 16, 2010 10:54:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Well-put, Shona. I think ultimately it comes down to a question of whether advocacy efforts are about us or are about those on whose behalf we claim to advocate.

Saturday, April 17, 2010 9:48:00 AM

Anonymous ED said...

Shona, You have a point and it's well put. I guess that's a problem you encounter any time you write about tragedy or suffering - people are more than just victims, but the suffering tends to be what's news. Where I disagree with you is I don't think writing about that suffering, even if you leave the other stuff out, makes it less real or the people who experience it less human. At least, to me it doesn't; I suppose different readers react in different ways. I don't know how Kristof conducts his interviews, but I would certainly hope that he or any other journalist would ask questions and listen to stories about other aspects of their lives. But what you listen to and what gets published are two different things. When it comes time to actually write a column, he has a small number of words to convey just how serious the situation is. There are a few ways one could do that, and he chooses to do it by using the most compelling personal anecdote he can find. I'm not sure he's wrong that works to motivate people. Perhaps some of his work could use a bit more nuance, but as long as the stories are accurate I won't fault him for doing what he things works best.

Saturday, April 17, 2010 12:40:00 PM

Anonymous Tom Haslett said...

I think there's a chicken-egg element to a lot of these advocacy approaches where someone like Kristof could feasibly claim that the general public responds mostly (if not exclusively) to pretty sensational things. A lot of folks don't want too many complexities with their doses of moralizing; I think there's a lot of room to criticize Kristof for intellectual dishonesty because he's not trying to be a leader by guiding people properly but unhappily I think he knows his audience pretty well.

Saturday, April 17, 2010 1:33:00 PM

Anonymous J. said...

TiA- Should you feel the need for additional support, add my voice to that of those who agree with you. I think your analysis of what's wrong with Kristof's writing is spot-on.

A desire to get another perspective out there - hopefully a more realistic one - is a big part of why I blog about humanitarian aid work.

Saturday, April 17, 2010 6:22:00 PM

Blogger shona congo said...

Ed, I agree that any journalist worth his or her salt (not to mention humanity) asks many questions and listens to many responses that he will never be able to include in the particular article he is writing. Words are limited and often journalists are pressured to cover the more sensational stories.

I guess that is why I find particular fault with Kristof, because he has a much larger platform than most journalists and could do so much more. My father worked as a newspaper reporter for his entire career and when, after years of work, he was finally given a weekly column in the local paper he loved it, because in general columnists do have so much more latitude in what and how they write. Yes,there are greater expectations of columnists in their need to grab reader attention, but overall they have fewer limitations put on their writing. But Kristof isn't just a columnist, he has become something of a celebrity in his own right (such that we are writing whole blogs about him!)and he has a large platform which he could use to tell the story more completely, even if his actual columns are being limited. He writes blogs, posts videos, and publishes books, and those would be the perfect places to present more fully and fairly the people he features in his articles. And yet most of what he does, continues in the same vein, presenting one-sided victims, while at the same time giving a plentiful amount of attention to himself and to other foreigners who are "doing something" like Lisa Shannon. I get the argument that journalists do not have unlimited space nor unlimited freedom of topic, and in general I think that is a valid consideration, but Kristof has more than enough of both. The earlier question Emily posed about whether Kristof sees things as superficially as he writes them , is an interesting one. If he is simply being forced into this style of writing by the limitations of a market-driven business, one would think he would use some of his many other outlets to get out more complete stories. The fact that he largely does not, leaves me wondering.

Sunday, April 18, 2010 3:51:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks to everyone for the very thoughtful comments on this post. I'm working on a post about journalism in central Africa and you've given me lots of food for thought.

Sunday, April 18, 2010 8:12:00 PM

Blogger MN said...

How do you respond to the idea though, that if Kristof doesn't write this way even LESS people will care about what happens in Africa than do now?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 12:34:00 AM

Anonymous Josh said...

I think that Kristof is a storyteller, and he would admit that. I think that if that mobilizes support for the issues, which is manifested on a policy level (in other words, completely divorced from the very specific stories Kristof talks about), its not such a bad thing. In microfinance, the same criticism has been leveled at Kiva. The money you lend on kiva doesn't actually go directly to some poor person waiting for a loan. It goes to a microfinance institution, who distributes it to their clients. You can criticize Kiva for not being transparent, but they have raised $100 million in microfinance loans out of nothing. Kristof may spin yarns, but I still think its worth it if it gets the uninterested involved.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 3:29:00 AM


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