Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Compels you?

I recently got into a discussion on another blog about the writing style of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. In case you haven't run into him lately, he covers places like Congo and Sudan, and he often tends to focus his columns on shocking stories of suffering from those regions.

He was speaking to the Columbia Journalism school and was asked this question.

Question: How much of the year are you traveling? Don't you get compassion fatigue?

: ... I'm leaving to go to Sudan... try to find most compelling story I can within limited time. Somebody will tell me about some heart-rending story about a 30-year-old man, and frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote... if I want to get middle-age man in my lead [sic], readers will tune out...

maybe it's going to be a 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes - some story that will get readers into the column....

I'm sometimes kind of embarrassed that I have to say - it's terrible that you were shot in the leg, but I will go off and find someone that was shot in both legs... I really want to find the most compelling anecdote to get readers into the story....

Kristof believes that shocking stories of suffering are what compels us.

But he also believes that writing about certain kinds of people helps make his stories more compelling.

In a blog entry he writes
"Readers sometimes ask why I often write about outsiders, like Lisa (The American woman who started Run For Congo), rather than about the innumerable local people who are doing extraordinary work — often at greater risk...

But it’s already very difficult to get Americans to show any interest in a remote, distant conflict, and if everyone in the drama is Congolese it’s that much harder. An American protagonist in the column creates a connection to readers, I hope, and leaves them more engaged in the topic. That may not be fair, but it’s the reality....."

So he thinks that stories about people similar to ourselves, doing something good, helps to compel us.

Leaving aside some questions about whether this is good journalism, I have a different question.

Does it work?

Now this is a totally honest question. And I really would love to hear some responses.

Do stories of shocking suffering compel you? Do stories of people like yourself compel you?

In fact what is it that compels you?

Because we all care about many things, in a general sense. But we live full lives, busy lives, and most of our time and attention goes to the people who fill our own lives. This is as it should be.

Yet occasionally some need, some cause, some project, or some person outside our normal circle catches us. Compels us. Maybe we volunteer, donate money, write a letter, start a blog, sign a petition, go to a meeting...

We are all confronted by a barrage of needs every day. But which ones compel us to action? And why?

Is it something about the way the message is communicated? Or who communicates it? Is it the problem itself that calls you? Or is it a particular type of solution?

It is often observed that people are far more likely to respond to needs after natural disasters, like the earthquake in Haiti, than to those that are man-made and on-going, like war? Is that true of you?

Today there is a wave of advocacy for all kinds of causes, using all kinds of media (this blog is a perfect example). Most of it we tune out. Or smile and nod. There is no way we can respond to it all.

Yet occasionally something compels us into action.

What compels you and why?

This is not a rhetorical question. I'd love to hear your thoughts!