A Conversation With Nicholas Kristof

by Jeffrey Kaiser:

Q: How do you see the state of the international news media?

A: Overall, I do think there is a little more appetite than there often has been historically in the U.S. On the other hand, news organizations are cutting costs in any way they can, and TV especially has realized that if you go out and cover Pakistan, Afghanistan, wherever it may be, that is dangerous and incredibly expensive, and on balance, probably won’t get the same ratings as throwing a democrat and a Republican in a room together and having them yell at each other. I think overall we’re going downhill in terms of coverage, with more and more news organizations closing their foreign news bureaus and relying on stringers, if at all.

Nicholas Kristof conducts an interview in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Will Okun)

Q: Many of your columns seem to have an activist tone. Is this something you strive for?

A: I flinch a little bit at the notion that I am an activist or a crusader because there is some connotation that that means that one’s first loyalty is to some ideological position as opposed to just empirically trying to gather the facts. But I must say, I look back at my body of work and it’s clear that I really do want to galvanize readers and that I care about a whole range of humanitarian issues. So I wouldn’t fight that label too much.

Q: Do you see this activism as a broader role for all journalists?

A: I think there is an inherent tension there because a lot of people, myself included, went into journalism because we do want to make a difference, and this is an opportunity to do so. On the other hand, you can’t cover every school board meeting or every political fight as if it’s the civil rights movement or genocide. There are a lot of cases where we really do need rigorous journalistic neutrality and objectivity. Maybe we can try a little harder to make a difference.

Q: On this theme of journalism as a way to promote action, what role should the media play in the endorsement of democracy around the world?

A: I wish that we would see democracy not just as an issue of elections but really as a much broader process, and I think that one of the best ways to promote that kind of a democratic environment is to support independent news organizations in countries and some of these new media outlets, whether they be radio stations, websites, bloggers, who can hold officials’ feet to the fire and, bit by bit, upgrade the conditions for greater prosperity, greater social services, greater literacy, and just more efficient government.

Q: Aside from hearing so many heartbreaking stories, what is the most difficult aspect of the type of reporting you do?

A: It is often hard to be sure of what is going on in places, just trying to verify the facts and understanding what narrative is right. When I was a foreign correspondent based in a pretty poor country it was hard enough, but at least then you are in the country, you speak the language. Now, in contrast, well, I am just planning a trip to the Congo, and so I don’t speak any local languages. It’s an enormously complicated country, and trying to make sure that you get it right can be really tough.

Q: In a world where so many issues warrant attention, how do you choose which stories to cover?

A: In part, I look for those topics where I think I can make the most difference. I think of the column as a bit of a spotlight, and it is most effective when directed at something that is not otherwise illuminated. Of course, it really only works if I can get access to a conflict or to a problem. I look for places that are accessible in some form and that aren’t getting a lot of attention, where I think that if people read this over breakfast or over their coffee in the morning that it will be one step toward making a difference.

Jeffrey Kaiser ’12 is a Political Science and International Studies major in Saybrook College. Contact him at jeffrey.kaiser@yale.edu.