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!


Rosiroo said...

Having lived in Africa myself, the lives of people there seem far less remote than Kristof might fear. I prefer to read about them, about what local people are doing and the ways they cope with hardship, rather than another marathon run or a short peppy article by someone who glosses over the complexity of the country or continent.

Journalism like this makes me angry. The media we see shapes the way we think, and by lazily conforming to the lowest common denominator, or the fear that Westerners will not care about far away people, does a disservice to the interconnectedness of our world and the potential we have to change it.

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shona congo said...

Thanks Regina, I'll be sure to do that.

Rosiroo, I agree. Kristof makes me angry because I think he is missing out on the beauty and the complexity of people's lives. He treats his subjects like characters rather than people, and in the end I wonder if that is less likely to compel us, not more.

However as you point out, living in Africa may be skewing our response. The people in Kristof's columns make me angry because I can't recognize them, and since I have lived in the place he is writing about, this bothers me.

Consider the commercials that came out after the earthquake in Haiti...the appeals for donations were highly based on striking, emotional images of suffering. Not so different from Kristof's style. I am guessing that such fund-raising efforts are heavily studied, and the shocking, horrifying images must be what draws the most response. Likewise, Kristof has quite a following in his own right. Does this mean that the style, whether we like it or not, works?

Zebulon said...

What compels me is, quite simply, what people I know and/or trust tell me. I am aware of, and largely able to ignore, the fact that there is hardship and suffering all over the world. I only feel like this is 'my problem' when I (1) have a sense that I understand what is going on, and (2) see a plausible way in which my contribution can make an impact.

To me, Kristof's reporting is distinctly unhelpful in this respect. Africa appears as a hopeless continent, with the suffering so illogical and so out of proportion to any assistance I could give, that I wouldn't bother if I only had him to rely on. Even more so as Kristof does not strike me as someone who is very knowledgeable about the deeper mechanics of the crises he is describing.

Possibly, much depends on how his readers perceive Kristof (do they trust him? Do they consider him a good guide to the mechanics of what is going wrong and how it can be solved?). While this makes the argument circular, I do think it is as much about who tells the story as about how the story is told.

By contrast, I was inspired by what a knowledgeable source like TexasInAfrica wrote about Heal Africa (

That being said, I don't think this is a 'majority view'. Seeing how much easier it seems to raise funds after dramatic natural disasters than for structural aid, it may just be shocking images which compel many to donate.

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shona congo said...

You make a very good point. How we respond to a story is largely based on who is telling it, and how we perceive that person.

I agree with you, I don't find Kristof compelling partly because I don't find him to be a credible expert. By offering such oversimplified depictions of people, he loses my confidence. There was an interesting discussion on Texas in Africa on whether Kristof actually believes his simplifications or whether he just thinks that is what his readers will react to. But either way, he loses my confidence as an expert along the way.

I agree also that we respond in situations where a response seems both do-able and actually helpful. The more Kristof overemphasizes the suffering, the less it seems likely that we can do anything helpful to respond.

But in the end you think yours is not the majority view. I wonder why this would be. Both your and Rosiroo's responses seems perfectly logical to me, and in agreement with eachother. What would make the average person's response so different from yours and mine?

Or do our media, and our fundraising machines just misjudge us? Do they assume what we will best respond to based on what is easiest for them to depict? I honestly don't know. At some point NGOs decided that natural disasters are the big fund-raisers, so they've invested a huge amount of their publicity money on those events. So of course those are the events we respond to.

Which came first the chicken of the egg? Is journalism simplified because that is what we truly demand or because that is what it is easier to give us?

Zebulon said...

The chicken or the egg? I really don't know. I think the comments of Rosiroo and myself are those of people who have an interest in African issues, and are therefor willing to spend a little more time to find the information we need to make an informed judgment.

By contrast, Kristof's starting point seems to be that most readers won't bother to go behind the headline or first paragraph unless he gives them a pretty good reason to do so, i.e. something that grabs them emotionally. I see his point (although I also don't know whether it is universally valid), but I don't see why you always needs spectacular victimization to achieve that emotional connection. I, for example, find that I am more easily drawn into stories about family ties, friendships and love (sounds cheesy, I know) which show the commonality of human emotions in difficult circumstances. But, and I know I am just rambling on, this too can easily become the mother-and-starving-child stereotype, at which point I switch off.

One aspect that may explain the focus on disaster relief is that the problems they create seem so fixable: when an earthquake destroys houses, schools and hospitals, you just need money to build a new ones (you can almost visualize the numbers of bricks your donation buys). But where there is longstanding conflict and lack of economic opportunity, it is not so easy to see where your dollars, euros or pounds make a difference.