Aiming to learn the why

It's fashionable to bash shoe-leather journalism as obsolete in the digital age. It's impossible to understand how the world and its people tick without it. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Monitor's Peter Ford was scanned for radiation after reporting in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture in June 2011.

Start with your family. Add friends, neighbors, colleagues at work or school, and the serendipitous encounters you have while walking your dog, shopping for dinner, or filling your gas tank. You probably have dozens of acquaintances. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar hypothesized that you probably top out at about 150.

New acquaintances arise; old ones recede. Beyond 150 or so – and even with Facebook and other digital wonders – we pretty much see strangers.

The point of good journalism is to help us understand what we can’t really know beyond our 150. Now, imagine your job is to make sense of a country of 1.4 billion people – 10 million times the Dunbar number – and that that country is changing at hyperspeed. That was Peter Ford’s assignment for the past 10 years as the Monitor’s China correspondent.

Actually, it was only part of his assignment. He had to keep an eye on all of East Asia. Other correspondents contributed. Still, Peter’s beat was roughly one-third of humanity.  “I felt daunted every day when I woke up,” he told me recently.

His advantage, though, was where he woke up. He was based in China, living there day to day, feeling its rhythms, breathing its not always pleasant air. A visiting journalist, businessperson, scholar, or tourist questions, listens, observes, and comes away with a reasonable sense of the who, what, when, and where of a nation that has risen from dire poverty to become a world-beating economic power in two generations. A resident correspondent like Peter aims for the why. He does that via both careful journalism and the osmosis that is part of living and working in a culture. The small gesture a person makes over tea; the banter in a taxi; the comments, asides, and jokes heard more than once – these rarely get into a news report, but put flesh on a people and a nation.

What’s the biggest change he’s seen in 10 years? “The growth of self-assurance,” he says. “The Chinese people feel that their country should be taken seriously in the world.” I’ll stop there and ask you to go to Peter’s valedictory cover story (click here). In 2,000 words, you’ll get a sprawling, intimate, serious, lighthearted, and, above all, honest account of the China he knows.

Peter’s new assignment is senior global correspondent. If anyone has the background to try to tackle that, he does. Besides his stint in Beijing, he has been based in Rome, Sri Lanka, New York, Central America, Buenos Aires, the Middle East, Moscow, and Paris. 

Succeeding Peter in Beijing is Michael Holtz, who has reported for the Monitor from China and elsewhere in Asia and is immersing himself in language studies this summer. Soon, he’ll be waking up in China every day. I’m guessing he’ll feel daunted. He’ll learn directly and by osmosis and he’ll share what he learns with us. And in the years ahead, we’ll come to a better understanding of 1.4 billion people we can’t possibly know but we definitely need to know about.

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