In How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India, New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry sheds some light on international news making:
Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.
She goes deeper into the contradictions of telling stories from other countries in an interview with Aaron Lammer on the Longform podcast. (Starting about 12:45)
Lammer: What had you learned about telling the big story of a place, when you end up in a place like Russia or India and you are asked to tell the story of a country, in the case of India which has one of the largest populations in the world, and you are supposed to boil that all down for the New York Times reader? How does that make you think about the story?
Barry: It’s terrifying to suddenly be the kind of oracular voice of authority in a place where you are still a stranger. And, of course, we are always strangers, no matter how much time and how much area expertise we acquire. And it is also a kind of skill. I think that especially 10 or 15 years ago, a kind of characteristic oracular voice of the foreign correspondent that was part of the tradecraft of being the foreign correspondent that you assumed that confidence to try and sort of clarify the thicket of confusing nuance and contradictory information that you get about foreign conflicts.
It was hard, I think the only way I managed to do it was fortunately I had a few years to go around and do reporting in Russia before I was called on to write those pieces like the bobbing head of the Wizard of Oz that tells you how it is. It took a long time to have the confidence to do that.
I think what you fall back on is being a reporter whether you’re in northern New England or the deep south or wherever, it’s always the same, it’s always the same job. You go out and you find some kind of narrative that illuminates a theme and you report until you can’t report anymore and you sit down and you try and write it. And, I suppose no matter how bewildering the landscape is, you can just do that if you’re careful. To me, learning India in particular, because I had very little background, was the only way I could have done it was just by going out and taking one bite of the apple and repeating the cycle for two or three years.