Insight from reporting abroad: Foreign correspondent offers journalism advice

The Daily Northwestern

Copyright The Daily Northwestern
Despite its history of involvement in the forefront of world politics, America won’t be a member of the most important economic relationship in the next two decades, said Howard French, the Shanghai Bureau Chief for The New York Times.
“The most important relationship over the next 20 years … is the relationship between China and Africa,” French said to a crowd of about 40 people in his presentation Monday in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum. The talk, entitled “A View of the World: The life and career of a foreign correspondent in changing times,” was part of the Crain Lecture Series.
French has served as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for more than 20 years, reporting on issues from the Caribbean, Africa, Japan and China. He recently accepted a teaching post at Columbia University, thus “ending” his career as a daily reporter, he said.
The multilingual journalist detailed his life experiences for about an hour and then fielded questions from the audience. He focused almost exclusively on China during the half-hour Q-and-A period.
China is starting to influence Africa faster than most people in the West have been able to comprehend, French said, citing the recent loan of $40 billion from China to Nigeria in exchange for crude oil and gasoline.
He also touched on Africa’s current population boom. Africa and China may comprise 40 percent of the world’s population in the next 30 years, French said.
Students asked questions about the balancing act reporters must perform between unbiased reporting and advocating for change.
“There’s only one bias that won’t go away with me, and that’s a bias in favor of human rights and freedom,” French said.
While China needs to make improvements in their approach to human rights, the Western world must keep in mind the country’s state of flux, French said.
“There has been a huge progression between the China of 15 years ago and the China of today,” he said. “We’re dealing with a country changing very fast.”
Although the talk was aimed at Northwestern journalism students, Evanston residents comprised most of the audience.
Carol Albertson, a former NU admissions office employee, returned from a trip to China last summer and said she was interested in what French had to say.
“I found his talk very fascinating and interesting, especially his views of China and Africa,” Albertson said.
French also offered advice to aspiring journalists, and recounted his first assignment as a foreign correspondent covering a war the war-torn African country Chad in the 1980s. He landed the assignment after the original reporter had to take leave for personal reasons, and covered it for The Washington Post.
When he reached the border, the country had closed to travelers, causing French to take a more creative approach: He rented a canoe to get across the river into Chad.
“I was covering essentially World War I-style trench warfare, except with aircraft,” he said.
Medill senior James Shih said he was interested in international journalism as a career, and attended the event to hear French’s take on becoming a foreign correspondent.
The fact that much of French’s success was the result of luck was “disheartening,” said Shih, a former Daily columnist.
While he was surprised that French was so opinionated about the Chinese government, Shih said he was glad French was honest about his opinions.
“That’s part of being a good journalist … that you have to have your judgement,” he said.
Despite his acknowledgement that many of his assignments fell into his lap by pure luck, French said students must be ready for the opportunities that come their way.
“Chance favors the prepared,” he said.
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