Nick Kristof Discusses Ethics of Reporting

Nick Kristof recently participated in an online workshop aimed at helping educators who wanted to teach the documentary Reporter in the classroom. The film, which follows Kristof through the Congo, details the techniques used by the columnist to get people to care about his reporting.

Kristof tackles some pretty tough issues in the Q & A, below are a few of the highlights.

On not letting passion interfere with fact:

The challenge is to feel passion and outrage without losing your skepticism. Over the years, for example, I’ve learned that victims of human rights abuses lie and exaggerate as much as perpetrators do. It’s very easy if you’re passionate and outraged to listen to victims and not double-check and triple-check and listen to the other side – or to get defensive when you’ve taken the victims’ side and not investigate charges that you’ve gone too far.

On how he chooses the topics of his columns:

I’m deluged with requests from people asking me to write about one injustice or another, and I can only address a small number. I look, first, for an issue that concerns a lot of people – so I’d be much less likely to write about one innocent prisoner than about a larger scale problem. I also look for an issue that people don’t know about but that if they did, they would be moved. Fistulas, sex trafficking, Darfur and Congo all fit into that rubric to some degree. On the other hand, I’ve written much less about AIDS, because it’s something that people already know about, so it’s harder to make a difference.

On the line between being a journalist and helping those in need:

My own answer, and I think that of most journalists, is that there’s no special journalistic principle involved. You’re a human first, a journalist after. In the case of the Buddhist monk [that set himself on fire in protest], the reporter knew that this was a calculated, well-thought out protest, not an impulsive act, and he thought it would be patronizing to intervene. I think maybe I buy that. But in other circumstances, I would reach for the fire extinguisher rather than my camera. As for the starving child [the Pulitzer-winning photograph of an Ethiopian child shadowed by a vulture], the photographer said that he had indeed taken the child into a feeding center after snapping the photo. And in Libya, some journalists were busy snapping photos but others did intervene and one was expelled from Libya for doing so.