I live in the nuanced specific.
Last spring, I went to the Tater Day festival in Marshall County, Ky. When I was in Alamance County, N.C., I learned about who erected a Confederate monument, and about the 1870s lynching victim who didn’t get a monument. And during a trip to Franklin County, Iowa, I got to know the morning-coffee-table political divide (conservatives favor Hardee’s, liberals end up at Rustic Brew).
Plunging into census data and election records helps me understand politics and demographics on a big scale. I read a community’s newspaper, and I peruse the local Facebook groups and online neighborhood boards for what’s really firing people up. When interviewing people, I ask what they do after work and school and on the weekends, how their town has changed, what businesses have opened and closed, who’s moving in and who’s leaving.
And whatever else, I no longer say queso.
‘Our coverage cannot be chin-stroking and scholarly’
Ellen Barry, an international correspondent based in London. She was formerly The Times’s bureau chief in New Delhi and Moscow.
In the 1990s, when I lived in Moscow and first reported from overseas for an American newspaper, it was rare to get feedback from the people you were writing about.
After an interview, you would promise to send the person you had interviewed a copy of your piece when it was published, happily close your notebook and set off to write. You were free as a bird: By the time the article appeared, and was sent to Moscow through a mail service, and then made its final journey to the person, it was weeks old, hardly worth a phone call, let alone a letter to the editor. In most cases, it wouldn’t make it that far.
Those days are over. In the age of social media, sloppy language can blow up quickly and spectacularly, like a pan of milk left to boil over on the stove. I work in London now for The Times, and for a while last month this country’s chattering classes were convulsed with amusement over a piece for our Travel section by a writer sent from New York, declaring that London’s restaurant scene had moved “Beyond Porridge and Boiled Mutton.”
I didn’t write the “porridge and boiled mutton” piece — actually, I love porridge — but I have had my share of social media pile-ons. For four years I covered India, a country that relishes minor scandals and is alert, after 190 years of colonial rule, to vapid generalizations made by foreign correspondents. I won’t go into the various sprees of criticism I set off — some deserved, some undeserved, some in which I was called a “pogosnake.” Anyway, I’ve been there.
I have two things to say about this: In the past, it was easier to get away with errors. Twenty years ago, foreign correspondents’ main audience was our own editors, our competitors and readers who likely never set foot in the country we were covering.