I’m applying to a fellowship that wants journalists who make a difference. It wants those who, in the words penned by Peter Finley Dunne and evoked by many a Mike Wallace obituary, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

This phrase pops up often in narrative journalism circles. For the first time I wondered: Does this mean that journalists should play the activist role?

The answer came partly from the program concept itself. The main draw of the fellowship is its affiliation with two highly-regarded news organizations known for painstaking fact checking — or admitting the lack thereof with painstaking thoroughness. (Oops — just gave away one of the organizations).

Then it occurred to me that some celebrated news writers do take sides, and that such an act touches the heart of my motivation for writing. I can trace my first nonfiction interest to books like Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol. When I read those in high school, the descriptions of deteriorating schools punched me in the gut. Later, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed sparked some of the same feelings. Yet I also love the deadpan work of writers like Gay Talese.

How can I reconcile this? For now, I can think of Nick Kristof.

Even holding the megaphone of a New York Times column, Kristof only whispers editorial comment. Mostly he describes reality. Reality for the survivors of sex trafficking and the families of military veterans who took their own lives. He quotes them liberally. He describes their mannerisms, their surroundings.

I’ve often thought of Kristof’s phrasing from a 2010 On Being interview (yes, NPR again, and thank you to GoodEye Journalism for plucking it out): Kristof said that “the power of journalism” is “the capacity to shine a spotlight on some issue and then thereby project it on the agenda.” A spotlight. Not a Kony 2012-style search light and screaming sirens, nor a Fox News  interrogation lamp. But not a room full of stark bulbs either.

Kristof responds to this kind of question a lot, it turns out. He told Fast Company earlier this year, “There is a faint, almost wandering line between advocacy and activism.”

This doesn’t completely melt my concern. Doesn’t advocacy already push to the side of a cause? What becomes of the stories left in the shadows? But this will have to do. For now, I feel comforted.

Photo: Flickr/-Kenzie-. Used under Creative Commons license.


Filed under Jobs, On media

3 responses to “Affliction

  1. laura

    How about Isabelle Wilkerson and Alex Kotlowitz? You are so right; just telling the stories is a kind of advocacy.

  2. I think it takes a large measure of compassion to advocate without using the subjects of a piece as a grindstone for one’s personal axe. Fortunately, I think you possess that kind of compassion and more. If Kristof’s whisperings (beautiful image, by the way) are whispers because he puts people before the story and before himself, how do you think his model can be taught to other journalists?

  3. Laura, thank you for the reading suggestions (not familiar with Wilkerson and Kotlowitz yet!)

    Harry, I’m not sure about teaching the model. Maybe it has more to do with finding the people who go into journalism for that reason and cultivating a good balance of compassion and reporting.

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