Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Provocative thinking about journalism from Nicholas Krstof and Sheryl WuDunn

The most recent issue of the The New York Times Sunday Magazine is focused on the theme, "Saving the world's women." The lead headline, "Why Women's Rights are the cause of our time," stems from an article adapted from a new book by Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, former Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn. I think theirs is a fascinating article, but my point in writing about it is not to address the question of whether they're correct, but instead to explore the ramifications of what they say about journalism.

What I appreciate about the article as a journalist is the way they talk about how their own thinking about what journalists should be covering has evolved. They describe witnessing the massacre at Tiananmen Square where between 400 and 800 people lost their lives and a year later learning from an obscure study that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because their parents didn't give them the same medical attention that boys received. "Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed," they write.

They write about their time as correspondents in China: "When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn't even consider it news."

The question their article raises is what should journalists be covering. One unrelenting dimension of the daily newspaper is that it needs to be fed. A narrow definition of news as what governments or people in positions of power did yesterday is a reliable and easy way to feed the beast. And, no, I'm not arguing that such coverage isn't relevant. But I am asking whether it's enough. My answer is, "No."

Kristof and WuDunn raise the importance of thematic coverage, of journalists committing to an issue or topic and not just covering it through the prism of what government is doing. They argue for an independent approach that I think is more demanding of journalists but in the long run also potentially results in much deeper and more valuable work.

As newspaper newsrooms shrink and we look to alternative business structures to produce journalism, it would be good to consider the approach of Kristof and WuDunn. If we do, I think we see a big window for publications with a thematic focus rather than with a geographic focus or a traditional news focus. (Maybe if so many news organizations weren't producing essentially the same news content, it would be possible to produce more of the kind of journalism Kristof and WuDunn provide even at traditional mainstream news organizations.) If we follow their model, I think we see an opportunity for even better reporting to emerge.




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