Arts event review

Nicholas D. Kristof talks about chasing hope as a journalist

The New York Times journalist shares insights from his new memoir

10521 author meeting
Writers Vivian Hir '25 and Russel Ismael with Nicholas D. Kristof, author of Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life.
Vivian Hir–The Tech

Nicholas D. Kristof

Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life 

First Parish Church, Cambridge

May 16, 2024 

On Thursday, May 16, renowned American journalist Nicholas D. Kristof talked about his first memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life, with former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust as the talk's moderator. The event took place at the First Parish Church and was hosted by the Harvard Book Store. A New York Times Opinion columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Kristof has written extensively about foreign affairs, specifically human rights issues and global conflict. 

Chasing Hope is about Kristof’s experiences as a journalist covering important events and issues around the world, from the Tiananmen Square protests to the Darfur genocide. Although the memoir discusses many heavy topics, it is also about Kristof’s search for hope and humanity in the most unexpected places. 

The book talk began with Faust asking Kristof, “Why write a memoir, and why now?” Kristof responded that he wanted to encourage more people to care about issues such as genocide and poverty, as well as increase advocacy for these causes. A lot of stories in Chasing Hope involve high-risk situations, such as being held at gunpoint, which made Faust ask Kristof about how to confront danger. Despite the risks that come with journalism, what motivates Kristof to go to places like Darfur is the desire to write a story as a way to “fight back,” citing journalism as a powerful tool to increase accountability and awareness. 

Continuing on the challenges of journalism, Kristof shared times he faced major ethical dilemmas in his career, especially the extent to which journalists should maintain an emotional distance from people. One compelling story he shared was that one of his sources was in jail and wanted Kristof to help him escape China. Although Kristof was aware that he was not supposed to provide help for professional reasons, ultimately, Kristof helped him. Kristof acknowledged the gray areas regarding transparency and boundaries, concluding, "if I was transparent with readers, they may agree or disagree, but I am not covering it up.” 

Following the ethical challenges in journalism was a discussion on Kristof’s transition from news to opinion. News articles are typically associated with mere objectivity and facts. Kristof, however, argued that to a certain degree, there is opinion in news articles. He used his news reporting of the Tiananmen Square massacre as an example, saying that opposed the Chinese military killing students. Reflecting on the transition, Kristof said there is “more autonomy in opinion,” as he finds more ways to reach a wider audience. 

Going along the lines of Kristof’s work as an opinion columnist, Faust asked how he “reshaped opinion journalism.” Traditionally, opinion journalism was about government and politics. On the other hand, Kristof covers issues that are overlooked and focuses on the stories of individuals, such as the repercussions of China’s One Child Policy on women. Kristof said that he writes more about society as a whole in his opinion articles, eloquently stating that “history isn’t just about what kings do in the capital, but also how society unfolds.”

While Kristof’s main focus as a journalist is global issues, his memoir also goes into great depth about domestic issues, notably “deaths of despair” that afflict the American working class. Growing up in rural Oregon, Kristof personally knows many people who died from deaths of despair. Poignant and vulnerable, Kristof shared stories of his childhood friends who ended up succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse. He opined that people tend to overlook these domestic issues, allowing these tragedies to unfold more and more.

From his time in Oregon, Faust brought up Kristof’s descriptions of Oregon and its inhabitants and asked if his words could accurately paint the color of their lives. Kristoff said sharing his descriptions is hard, as he has known some people in Oregon during his formative years, from cross-country teammates to girls at school dances. He also humorously stated that despite his efforts to not “piss off” the people he knows, Kristof understands that he will eventually do so anyway. Such was the case when he somberly told the audience about the mistake he made writing about his friend who passed away, which frustrated the friend’s mom. 

Faust also eventually asked how Kristof remained optimistic after all of the harrowing experiences he talked about. Although Kristof has witnessed many acts of human cruelty and evil, he believes that courage and resilience can exist in the midst of these atrocities. A case that stuck with Kristof regarding human evil was when he was in the Congo and saw warlords massacring the people there. However, this evil was balanced by the dichotomy he saw in a Polish nun running a feeding center to save people as a force of good.

Because of this, Kristof admitted that his optimism is a “scarred optimism”; he draws inspiration from Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian who fought Apartheid, and his principles of self-efficacy and resilience—embodied by the Polish nun. He further discussed how many things have changed in his lifetime for the better, citing statistics that show a significant decrease in global poverty and child mortality rates over the past 40 years. Although this does not address current societal challenges, he suggested that the audience consider the “backdrop” and the “big picture” of this climate, as “our capacity to fight back and address challenges” will persist.

After Kristof’s talk, a Q&A session followed from the audience. One audience member asked Kristof about his stance on phones and social media and how they affect journalism. Kristof stated that he had mixed thoughts on the subject, as social media led to the proliferation of misinformation. He gave the case of how Facebook influenced people to burn villages in Myanmar during the Rohingya refugee crisis, as many people saw that as a reprisal for a fabricated sexual assault story. He also acknowledged the good that comes from such technologies, as both led to more widespread coverage of issues like women’s rights in countries like Iran, which represses them.

Kristof was also asked how he psychologically prepares himself for the atrocities he will witness. He said that the most difficult aspect is returning to his family and trying to forget what he saw. He also described how he used wilderness therapy to keep his mind off the atrocities but admitted that his mind sometimes wanders back to the “people he left behind.” He thinks about the people who helped him in his journeys, from interpreters to drivers, and how he fears his stories will put them at more risk. Kristof clarified that although it is easy for him to accept the risks he takes for himself, he finds it horrible to impose that same risk on other people who may not hold the same reservations.

Near the end of his talk, Kristof described Chasing Hope as a “love letter to journalism” and the importance of providing accountability and holding truth to power. He reminded the audience why journalism should be respected as an institution, as it forces people to consider the difficult problems around the world, at home, and in the gray areas between. Despite the gravity of the topics, Kristof left the audience and readers thinking about the hope that comes from understanding humanity more deeply and profoundly.