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?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.
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.
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.