In April of 2010, New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof was preparing to head out on a reporting expedition to Sudan when he stopped in at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to chat with students about his career covering conflict abroad. Four years earlier, Kristof had won his second Pulitzer Prize for what the committee called “graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.” Now, on the eve of another trip to the region, the forum’s moderator, Filipina investigative journalist Sheila Coronel, asked Kristof if he ever got depressed at the prospect of flying halfway around the world to hunt down another sad story.
“I’m sometimes embarrassed by how clinical I can become when I’m out reporting,” Kristof replied. When he arrived in Sudan that weekend, he said, “I’ll be out to find the most compelling story that I can within a limited time.” He predicted that he’d hear “some heartrending story about some 30-year-old man. And, frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote. I want to get American readers to care about my story, and if I have some middle-aged man in my lede, they’re going to tune out.” Instead, Kristof would hold out for a more compelling subject, like “some 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes.”
Kristof feels lousy when he has to “cut somebody off and say, ‘It's terrible that you were shot in the leg,’ ” he said. “Meanwhile, I will go off and find someone who was shot in both legs.” But he does it because he knows that if he finds a compelling story abroad, Americans back home will line up to help. “I want to make people spill their coffee when they read the column,” he said. “I do want them to go and donate, volunteer, whatever it may be, to help chip away at some of these problems.”
Perhaps that is how he came to write about Long Pross, a Cambodian teenager who said she was kidnapped, beaten, tortured with electric currents, tied up, and sold in a brothel at 13, “where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.” When the wound sprayed “blood and pus” on customers, Kristof wrote in a 2009 column, the owner “discarded” her. That story came courtesy of Somaly Mam, a telegenic Cambodian anti-trafficking activist who had rescued Pross after overcoming a similarly sad backstory. Mam said she had escaped rape and torture as a child sex-trafficking victim to advocate for girls like her, only to see her 14-year-old daughter kidnapped and gang-raped by human traffickers in retaliation. Kristof devoted columns to her, too, boosting her story and live-tweeting his ride-along on her 2011 brothel raid.
Last month, Newsweek revealed that the most horrific sections of Mam’s backstory had been inflated and fabricated, and that she had enlisted Pross—who had actually lost the eye after undergoing surgery for a nonmalignant tumor—to do the same. Responding to revelations about Mam’s deception, Kristof said in a column last week, “I wish I had never written about her.”
* * *
When Kristof kicked off his Times column in 2001, he felt awkward behind the opinion desk. A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, Kristof had spent 17 years reporting for the Times, first in New York and Los Angeles, then in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo.* He picked up conversational Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Arabic in his travels around the world and at home.* In 1990, he shared his first Pulitzer Prize with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, for their joint Times coverage of the uprising in Tiananmen Square. Now, settled into a column, “it felt incredibly strange to be writing my opinions,” he told the Columbia students. “I'd show my draft columns to my wife, and she’d say, ‘This opinion is pretty feeble. It looks more like a news analysis than an opinion.’ So I'd go back and add a few adjectives.” He laughed at the idea, but seriously: “Gradually, it’s become a lot more natural to hurl out opinions.” (Kristof didn’t immediately return an email requesting comment. Update, June 20: Kristof says he never received the email.)
At first, Kristof patrolled the typical terrain of a Times opinion columnist—the Iraq War, U.S.-Iranian relations, post-9/11 domestic terrorism. Maureen Dowd snagged her own Pulitzer in 1999 by punning on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, week after week, but Kristof always kept one foot lodged in the reporting world, traveling to Shiite cities and publishing scoops on WMDs. Soon, he came to realize that the typical pundit’s influence over public opinion was “exaggerated.” When it comes to well-trodden political issues, readers who already agreed with his take would eat up his columns, while those who disagreed would reject them from the headline. The only way to change minds, he found, was to tell people a story that they had never heard before.
In March of 2004, Kristof took on an issue other American journalists wouldn’t touch. “The most vicious ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of is unfolding here in the southeastern fringes of the Sahara Desert,” Kristof reported from the Chad-Sudan border. “It’s a campaign of murder, rape and pillage by Sudan’s Arab rulers that has forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages.” Kristof reported regularly on the Sudan for two years, turning his op-ed perch into a bureau of one. But back in New York, his neighbors were obsessed with the plight of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk that had been kicked out of the nest he’d built on the ledge of an upscale apartment complex by the building’s co-op board. “New Yorkers were all up in arms about a red-tailed hawk being homeless,” Kristof told the Columbia students. Meanwhile, “I couldn’t get them to care as much about hundreds of thousands of people” who were being “kicked out of their homes” only to “disappear without a trace.”
The disconnect inspired Kristof to delve into social science studies on the psychological roots of empathy, which led him to an emerging body of work based on what inspires people to donate to charity. In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is “desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.” Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the “identifiable-victim effect,” they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the “limits of rationality” in reporting on human suffering: “One death is a tragedy,” he told the students, “and a million deaths are a statistic.”