A Small Talk About Big Issues

When a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner speaks somewhere, they usually do so by addressing large crowds on stage in an auditorium. WSU Vancouver students, however, had the opportunity to meet Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times from Yamhill, Ore., in a more intimate setting as part of the Public Affairs Lecture Series Nov. 4. The Firstenburg Student Center hosted a question and answer session where Kristof fielded questions, both those asked by Audrey Miller, VanCougar Editor-in-Chief, and those submitted by the students in attendance.

While Kristof’s keynote speech later that evening was about the world wide problem of sex trafficking the earlier event for students covered more topics with questions about his challenges as a journalist and writer for local politics. The first question asked was about the challenges of objectivity in journalism. Kristof has written about genocide and violent sexual exploitation, political oppression and poverty, topics he said would be difficult for anyone to remain objective while coveringd. In this vein, Kristof spoke about one of the times his commitment to journalistic objectivity was tested: the Tienanmen Square uprising in China. While in China covering the story, Kristof worked with a 19-year-old Chinese student who provided him with information and a local perspective on the events. For the crime of speaking so candidly, the student was jailed. As Kristof and his wife were leaving Beijing, the student, who had escaped from prison, found them and asked for their help fleeing the country. “We had responsibilities as journalists, and responsibilities as people,” Kristof said. In the end, Kristof decided to help the student flee to America. It was a decision he takes pride in to this day.

The way that people consume news was another subject that Kristof was asked about. Overall, he said that journalism as an institution is going through major changes with the introduction of the Internet, and that the major institutions of journalism, such as the Washington Post or the CBS Evening News, have struggled in many ways to adapt. “We used to be the gatekeepers of information,” he said, explaining that at one point, there were very few sources of news for people. The speed of news reporting, once limited to a small window per day, has grown until now, where the focus is on being the first to break a story before it gets pounced on by Twitter or the 24-hour news cycle common in cable news or the blogging scene. Rumors, as a result, often go unchecked and break into the news cycle before they can be debunked. He emphasized the need to think critically about the sources of news, their credibility and their agenda.
Additionally, in relation to journalism Kristof said that today it was doing a good job at calling attention to problems. Journalists rarely change a person’s mind, but Kristof said that they could excel at shining a light on an issue. “Social problems flourish because they are hard to face,” he remarked. “Journalism is about making people face them.” He described his goal as making the reader spill their coffee in the morning, and that if he did that, he did his job.

Connecting back to his lecture on sex trafficking, many people assume that a prostitute they see on a corner is in an unfortunate place in life but have chosen this life. It is the job of a journalist, Kristof said, to dig down and look for the underlying cause of problems in society rather than simply examine things at the surface level. He later said that digging down under issues to find their roots was a key part of his writing process and the way he identifies those people on the streets who suffer in the system of sex trafficking.

When asked about the scope topics he covers and how intimidating that can seem, Kristof said, “find an issue that speaks to you.” He said that local issues are a good place to start but when dealing with an issue that matters personally, whether it is in Vancouver or Vietnam, it is secondary to finding a way to make a difference.

Much as he did with critically analyzing sources of news, however, Kristof encouraged the audience to examine the groups they give their money and time to. Roughly three quarters of Americans donate money or time, he said, but they often do it in a thoughtless way, doing so as a way to make themselves feel as though they nebulously “helped” with an issue without examining how a group might use their money or time. He encouraged listeners to use the sources of information on the spending of non-profits that exist now, which were not available a generation ago, to help them decide which groups to help.

Local politics were another topic of interest to Kristof, who described the Pacific Northwest as a laboratory of sorts for new programs. Some of the ones he said showed particular promise were the Oregon Health Plan and the work Washington has done to combat human trafficking down the Interstate 5 corridor and elsewhere in the state. Gridlock in Washington, D.C. has left many Governors to take up the mantle of leadership and some of the efforts that Kristof has seen in the Northwest have left him hopeful that other states will observe and adapt them for their own use.

Nicholas Kristof about his opinions on controversial subjects and appeared to be giving candid opinions, even on sensitive subjects that could endanger him, such as his aiding a Chinese fugitive. While it may have been a rainy night in November WSU Vancouver was packed into his keynote address and the conversation before hand. Several events have been scheduled as follow-ups to Kristof’s talk and will focus on sex trafficking in the local area. Nov. 8 from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Firstenburg Student Commons will be the Engage-In, sponsored by the VanCoug American Democracy Project. On Nov. 14 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the Dengerink Administration Building, Room 129 will be the showing of the sex trafficking documentary, Playground, sponsored by the Public Affairs Lecture Series. For more information about these events visit the Public Affairs Lecture Series Facebook page and the VanCoug American Democracy Project Facebook page.

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