Released last week by the NGO Invisible Children, the 30 minute film KONY 2012 has already been viewed more than 70 million times on YouTube and made the eponymous Ugandan militia leader a household name, at least for now. (For more information on Kony, here’s a slideshow of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and a post about some of the complexities of the viral video.) Nicholas D. Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer prize winning columnist with the New York Times, writes twice weekly columns that often focus on under-reported humanitarian issues around the world. What follows is an interview with Kristof about social media, the importance of individualizing Kony, and the far more serious problem of worms; edited and condensed for clarity.
Were you surprised by the popularity of the Kony video?
Absolutely. It’s been so hard for the humanitarian world to get attention for any kind of disaster. I go places and do my videos, and my mother watches them. These guys do one about Kony and seventy million people see it.
What other international humanitarian problems would benefit from this type of attention?
Global health is hugely under-covered. (Like Kony) it’s always there, it’s not really news on one day. Malnutrition remains a vast problem. Kids who are malnourished early in life lag in cognitive development, and we tend not to write about it or cover it. Pneumonia likewise, I don’t think people realize that it’s perhaps the single greatest killer of kids around the world. Something as simple as worms: few remedies would matter more for more kids than de-worming kids around the world. Yet obviously we never write about de-worming or kids, it’s just part of the backdrop.
Congo remains very under-covered, considering it’s probably the most lethal conflict since World War 2. In Mali and its neighbors, there’s been a growing security crisis and refugee crisis, and it’s gotten very little attention.
Why have Congo and Mali gotten comparatively such little attention?
Not much happens in the way of a big event. We tend to be good at covering events but not good at just covering underlying realities. More people die in Congo from diarrhea than bullets, because you can’t deliver food and health care to the middle of a conflict zone. The story in Mali is in Northern Mali, and that’s very difficult to reach safely, so it’s been largely off the radar. And when I write about these kinds of global issues, my readership falls. Any journalist, especially television, is better off putting a Democrat and a Republican in a room together and having them yell at each other.
Is this going to make it easier for news organizations to argue that there should be more attention paid to these far off crises?
Maybe at the margin, but these organizations have a pretty good idea of what gets viewers. If ABC had sent a crew out to Central African Republic to try to report on Joseph Kony it would have been amazingly expensive, somewhat dangerous, and I think very few people would have watched. I don’t think viewers are desperate for information about Joseph Kony, I think that the producers of this video were quite brilliant in the way they did it. I wish that the larger lesson was that people cared about humanitarian crises around the world. I’m skeptical that’s the case.
Will the attention this video brought to Kony make a difference in tracking him down?
Hard to know, but attention creates pressure on officials at home and around the world. I think Kony’s prospects are worse this week than they were two weeks ago.
What advice would you give to young, ambitious people working in the humanitarian sphere on how to publicize things like what’s going on in Congo, or with things like pneumonia?
I think the humanitarian world has traditionally been quite awful at marketing. Full of earnestness but very unsophisticated about how to get people interested in issues. These guys had an amazing marketing success that is a reminder that sometimes social media really can make something go viral. (Telling) individual stories are certainly part of that, as are stories that connect Americans to people abroad. Likewise, moving from the LRA as a whole to Kony as an individual, I think made it more specific and individual. There’s always a tension between getting people’s attention without over-simplifying, but I think that it made sense for them to focus on Kony as an individual.
What humanitarian crises have you covered in the past where grassroots pressure from Americans helped; conversely, any areas where you think extra pressure actually hurt the cause?
I think that in the case of Darfur, there are lots and lots of people alive today because college students and churches and synagogues around the country protested. Likewise Eastern Congo has made progress in part because it became an issue. In terms of cases where things were made worse, I think one can make a case that the sweatshop movement may have pushed companies to source in ways that were more capital intensive and less labor intensive, in ways that ultimately meant fewer jobs in the neediest part of the world.