Wick Communications

‘It’s about individual stories’

In journalism on October 9, 2014 at 12:55 pm

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I was over the moon when my daughter asked if I would cart her and a friend to The Castro Theater in San Francisco to hear Nicholas Kristof speak. I mean, can it get any better than that for an old newspaper editor? For one night at least, my teenager was interested enough in the intersection of global politics and journalism to risk being seen with her father on the streets of the big city.

I am a great admirer of Kristof. The New York Times columnist has earned two Pulitzer Prizes. His reporting from Africa and Asia and others corner of the world has shed light on problems that can use all the illumination they can get. It is some kind of collective international hypnosis that allows us to sleep at night amid genocide, sex trafficking, child soldiers and myriad other unthinkable maladies worrying our world.

On Tuesday night, Kristof spoke of the moral duty of journalists to report on the big stuff that almost by definition isn’t news simply because it isn’t new. He mentioned a UNICEF report noting that 17,000 children under the age of 5 die of preventable diseases every single day. He told us when he was writing about a true humanitarian crisis in Darfur in 2004, during which nearly a half a million people were killed, New York City was fixated instead on a pair of red-tailed hawks. Someone removed their nest from a tony Manhattan residence, sparking, Wikipedia says, an international outcry and a series of impassioned protests organized by New York City Audubon Society and the Central Park birding community. (In case you are wondering, Mary Tyler Moore protested the removal of the nest, not genocide in Africa.) …

Kristof said he despaired a little bit, feeling that his reporting was “dropping to the bottom without a ripple.”

So what is a journalist to do then? How can we justify the expense of covering meaningful stories when our readers demand so much less?

Kristof suggests the answer lies in the power of individual stories. Jessica Jackley, founder of the mico-finance organization Kiva and the evening’s presenter, noted the famous Joseph Stalin quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”

“It’s about individual stories,” Kristof said. “Don’t ask people to do math problems” to understand the scope of the problem.

And so that is the takeaway today. Tell stories about individuals in your community. Do you want to report on homelessness? Focus on one homeless mother and then broaden the topic somewhere long about your ninth paragraph. Then return to that individual story. Do you want to tackle the erosion in the middle class? Find a family that will take you through its financial history. Somewhere in there discuss the macroeconomics of the problem.

On one level, our problems are absolutely overwhelming. On another they are merely a series of individual problems. Those are your stories. The rest is just statistics.

Clay

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