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Increasing empathy: can journalism help people relate to distant problems?
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Research shows that people relate to the suffering of one as a tragedy, but tune out broader suffering as a statistic. Is there a way to help people care about distant problems and global poverty? - photo by Jesse Hyde
Since joining the New York Times in 1984, Nicholas Kristof has had a simple, but important, mission: bring attention to some of the world's most vexing problems.

And Kristof has used an effective formula to do just that, whether he's writing about sex trafficking in Cambodia or war in the Congo: bring readers in with an engaging individual story, and show that the situation isn't hopeless.

As part of the Solutions Journalism Network, we have operated from a similar premise when tackling seemingly intractable problems, from poverty and women's rights issues in India to the high cost of disposable diapers in America's inner cities.

And yet new research suggests this approach to reporting the news may not be that effective.

In a study recently published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon named Scott Maier used content analysis and media metrics to assess how effectively a year's worth of Kristof columns attracted reader's attention and found that despite "putting a face" on "tough and distant social issues," highlighting moments of triumph and success, and buttressing his stories with quantitative data, reader engagement with his columns followed the same trends apparent in all media: when he wrote about celebrities, like Lady Gaga's anti-bullying campaign, or issues with high interest in the U.S. (like Israel or the presidential election) readers responded. But when he wrote about distant problems with no strong relationship to the U.S., reader engagement was low.

However, as Maier pointed out in a subsequent column on his research, that doesn't mean Kristof isn't having an impact.

"His columns routinely made the New York Times "most popular" list and his professional Facebook page has attracted more than a half-million subscribers. Several charities report that his column generated in excess of U.S. $100,000 in contributions when Kristof wrote about their organization."
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