Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times' often heroic international journalist, has stuck his inquisitive snout into dangerous situations throughout his career.
But admitting that there's a white reporter's burden in writing about Africa is among the braver things he's done. It's the bold revelation of a messy little secret not so mysterious to those of us in the profession.
In a YouTube post answering reader's questions -- good, interactive idea -- Kristof picked this one: "Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors."
After naming some Africans he's mentioned in his columns who are making a difference, he says, "But I do take your point. That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who's doing something there."
Why, if that's not the real narrative arc of the story? Isn't this just reinforcing the Ugly American view of the world, where we're always at the center?
"The problem that I face -- my challenge as a writer -- in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I'm writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that's the moment to turn the page. It's very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that."
Sometimes I turn the page on those stories myself in a rush to get to Maureen Dowd. But I remember a similar problem covering Central America, where readers often didn't know or didn't care which country was which.
"One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character," Kristof said.
Bridge character? Along with the overuse of "narrative" (see above) in talking about journalism, this is sounding uncomfortably like fiction writing. It's not about made-up prose, though. It's just a reality of our profession that's gotten more acute as digital progress gives the public we serve an increasing role in making up its own mind about what's interesting and happily digestible.
Even those of us who've reported from countries in conflict, but without Kristof's great pedigree for highlighting injustices worldwide, know that there's an imperative that stories need to be readable in addition to being substantial.
In an era of Demand Media, where trending topics and search rankings drive assignments -- often "evergreen" stories about how to bake a cake or buy a house -- this is a more difficult subject than it was when I moved from the Philippines to El Salvador and editor/reader interest plummeted.
The 1980's Philippines during the end of the Marcos era was made for oversimplification and parachute journalism: Most people spoke English, much of the dramatic action unfolded on TV, there was a stereotypical bad guy (Marcos) and equally stereotypical angel (Cory Aquino). The reality was more complicated, of course. But the easy-to-understand overlay drew interested eyeballs really well.
Salvador, which was undergoing its own violent upheaval and was even more of a chess piece in the Cold War era, was just one of those confusing Central American countries. Whose side were we on there? Is that where the Sandinistas are? Are we for them or against them?
Story lengths were halved and it was a rare, bloody day in San Salvador when a piece from there made the front page. But everyone paid attention when a bunch of U.S. Special Forces soldiers got hemmed in at the capitol's Sheraton, surrounded by leftist guerrillas during a military offensive. I'm sure I squeezed the hell out of that harder than I did another failed-land-reform expose.
It does make you think about context and framing and who you choose to write your story around. This is one of many on-the-ground realities for war correspondents. Things like information trade-offs in tropical jungles or the cool courtyard of embassies, decisions made under threat of bodily harm -- all sorts of situational circumstances where you might bend a rule or two in the pursuit of telling the tale -- do happen. Angling a story to make it more readable isn't a sin.
(Reporters covering obscure budget issues or dense business theory may face the same problem, though the stakes are usually lower.)
In the past, giving people what they want wasn't on the table. Our Higher Calling disease compelled us to tell our audiences what was important whether they were interested or not. Those days are over. Yahoo just announced a new news blog, The Upshot, which involves quality reporters but still relies on computerized topic assessments to provide the leads.
And simpler is better in an adrenalized, multi-tasking world, especially in a culture conditioned by Walt Disney.
Now, even for pros like Kristof, it can be a very black-or-white thing. Who doesn't grasp an evil, non-white foreign government oppressing its people vs. a white knight from a hometown near you?
So what's the solution? Do we have to dress the Yanks in lifts and halos to make our stories readable?
NYTPicker, the spicy blog often critical of the Times, isn't sure itself. While reverential about Kristof ("praised by presidents and world leaders for his compassionate and determined effort to help the destitute"), a post on him does note a view that he displays, at times, a "condescending superiority" over the suffering characters in his column.
But by freely admitting his slant, Kristof has provided something else the crowd says it wants these days: transparency.
Kristof should "push himself to question his ongoing narrative," Timespicker says, and "put aside his homegrown American heroes in favor of richer yarns" about locals.
Ah, but the richer yarn part is the problem. Richer for whom? Can Kristof get Lindsay Lohan in that Eastern Congo story somewhere?