Field Notes from an Ethical Minefield

Thursday, Nov 16, 2017
by Malka Himelhoch '21

On Wednesday Nov.8, I walked into the McCosh 50 lecture hall at Princeton University. It was overflowing with people and buzzing with excitement. Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” was there to give the second annual Distinguished Teaching Lecture in Service and Civic Engagement titled “Field Notes from an Ethical Minefield.” 

When I was a senior in high school my organic chemistry teacher gave me Katherine Boo’s book. I read all 288 pages of it in one sitting. When I put it down I cried. Then, I applied for Bridge Year India. Without Boo’s beautiful writing and reporting, I wouldn’t have spent nine months living in Varanasi. I wouldn’t have experienced the magic of India or witnessed the incredible injustices in the daily lives of my students. So, when I walked into the auditorium on Nov. 8, I was excited to hear her speak as a world renowned journalist and because her book had been instrumental in shaping my life.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” was what drew most of the audience to the event. Pulkit Singh ’20 said she came because she was fascinated by the book and wanted to hear more about the issues it touched upon. Singh is from Bangalore, India and added that she came to the event because Boo’s book was about her country of origin. 

Community member John Trunkwalter was also intrigued by the subject of Boo’s book. “I’m interested in the idea of service and us as educated people looking at service and how we can better understand disadvantaged communities,” he said. 

In her talk, Boo highlighted principles that she uses to navigate what she calls the “ethical minefield” of reporting in disadvantaged communities. She explained that over the years she has crystallized these principles in order to “generate a more frank consideration of distorting habits” within journalism. 

Author and journalist Katherine Boo

Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski

One of her main goals while reporting is to ensure that the narratives she conveys aren’t simply diversions for affluent readers. This commitment was inspired by something that Abdul, one of the central figures in her book, said to his mother as he languished in jail unable to find money to post bail. “Our tragedy is their entertainment”, he said.

“I don’t want to be trafficking in poverty porn,” Boo said. She avoids this by exposing corruption in institutions and officials rather than just documenting the tragedies of the disadvantaged. By exposing the small and larger crimes she hopes that the broader injustices will become visible. 

Boo is also committed to what she calls, “longitudinal reporting” -- long term reporting. She believes that only through a long term commitment to join people in their everyday lives can she hope to hear the stories that they want to tell rather than a pre-constructed story. 

She gave the example of Sunil, another of the central figures in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” “He thinks he’s like the garbage he collects,” Boo said. 

Instead of sticking a microphone in his face and expecting him to tell his story, she joined Sunil in his routine, watched his choices and began to understand how they revealed his values. Then, Boo would ask questions about those choices. Only by devoting a lot of time to understanding each person (or “co-investigator” as Boo puts it) can she begin to understand the overall narrative of their lives.

Longitudinal reporting also helps Boo avoid what she views as a common pitfall - storytelling choreographed by the privileged. “We see problems of the poor highlighted when the solutions of the rich are validated,” Boo said. 

She explained that often in the aftermath of a disaster reporters descend on disadvantaged communities with preconceived narratives that are then overlaid onto the members of the community. 

In India, I worked at an non-governmental organization school called Asha Deep that provided education to children of a slum called Nagwa. Donors and reporters would come through the school every so often and because I spoke English they would frequently ask me questions. I quickly realized that no matter what I said about the school or my students these people would only hear what they had come prepared to hear. This was incredibly frustrating, I couldn’t understand why people would come all the way to India, all the way to Asha Deep, and not actually listen to what I and the other teachers had to say. 

This is exactly the pitfall that Boo is so determined to avoid. She feels an obligation to immerse herself in communities so that she can deeply listen and understand the stories that people are actually trying to tell. Through this immersion in communities where injustice is rampant, she feels that she can piece stories together rather than plugging people’s narratives into a piece of already constructed reporting.

Crowd at the Distinguished Teaching Lecture

Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski

Boo also thinks deeply about the medium through which she transmits the stories that she collects. “Without readers you have nothing,” she said. “The writing can bring the reader into an experience that is previously hidden to them… engage people almost against their will.”

Donna Trunkwalter, a special-ed teacher in southern New Jersey, was incredibly moved by Boo’s talk. 

“My children, especially those from low economic situations don’t have people worrying about them so much,” Trunkwalter said. “So I spend a lot more time on the other kids as part of the cycle of the lack of care. But those [disadvantaged children] are the one who need more care.”

Trunkwalter said that now she’s going to make more of an effort to give attention to those disadvantaged children - try to break them out of the cycle of disadvantage. 

Through her writing, Boo is attempting to create a worldwide “community of responsibility” for the injustices in which we are all complicit actors. At her talk on Nov. 8 she succeeded.