GLOCAL MAN

An interview with Doug McGill (left) by Bob Garfield of NPR's On the Media,  May 20, 2005. For a podcast of the interview, click here. (Starts at 6:24)

Doug McGill has worked as a staff reporter for The New York Times and as the London and Hong Kong bureau chief for Bloomberg News. But he left all that behind to take up a somewhat broader beat – the entire world. And what better place from which to cover the world than his home ...

GARFIELD: We start with the story of a journalism professor and named Doug McGill. Two Decembers ago, hundreds of Ethiopian refugees in his community started receiving frantic phone calls from their relatives back home. Ethiopian soldiers had marched into the Ethiopian town of Gambella, near the Sudan border, and were systematically murdering villagers there. McGill heard about the calls, interviewed the refugees, and wrote about it on his blog. In so doing, he broke the story of the massacre of more than 425 people, part of the Ethiopian government’s cleansing campaign against the ethnic Anuak minority.  His story was then picked up by local, national and international media. In other words, it was a scoop, reported from thousands of miles away.  It would have been unimaginable before the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet and it points to brave new reporting possibilities. McGill calls it “glocalized” journalism, which he defines as the illumination of “invisible strands of mutual influence connecting every town and city to the rest of the world.”

Doug, welcome to the show.

MCGILL: Hi, Bob.

GARFIELD: Give me some examples of “glocalized journalism,” besides the enthic cleansing one about the Anuak.

MCGILL: One of my first stories was I walked into the local Penny’s department store and I picked up the first 30 pairs of socks that I found, and I made a record of where they were made. Most of them were made in China, and some where made in South America and two pairs were made in the United States.  And I also found in the gift shop of the same mall where I was  that the “I Love Rochester” coffee cup for the town where I live, Rochester, Minnesota, was also made in China. And I just wrote about that. I wrote about the experience of going to my local mall and finding out where things were made.

GARFIELD: Since time immemorial, newspapers have been finding local angles to international events by writing about the infamous “area man,” the “local man,” the cliched gimmick for finding that precious local angle. How is glocalized journalism any different?

MCGILL: I think of glocal journalism not as a strategy to come up with a story for tomorrow’s newspaper. It’s more like an ethical standard that I try to apply to every story that I write. Just about every story that you write in journalism, if you think about it, if you set aside the time to ask ‘What is the largest possible usefl, applicable context to the story. In today's world it's usually a global one. So I think it’s the journalist’s responsibility to illuminate that context. I think the idea of glocalism has a moral quality to it, to figure out “What’s the impact that we have on others, and what’s impact that others have on us?” So in that sense, I think of it as the Golden Rule in journalistic terms.  It turns out that it’s also a great strategy for getting wonderful scoops and stories as well.

GARFIELD: It sounds like you are saying that glocalization is almost the reciprocal of the “area man” cliche, in that it’s finding a local manifestation of a global story, and going out and finding the international explanation.

MCGILL: That’s exactly right. It goes both ways. It's the local impact of international events, and it's the international consequences of local events, sometimes. 

GARFIELD: Does this really mean that you are doing some sort of special “glocalized” journalism as you call it, or does it just mean that technology has created a situation in which in order to be a foreign correspondent you neither need to be abroad, nor have a gigantic news organization behind you like The New York Times, where you once worked, or like Bloomberg, where you once were a foreign correspondent. Doesn’t it just mean that you can do lots of things in your basement that before you had to have a press card to do?

MCGILL: I think both things are true. I think the technology makes new ways of journalism possible, and it does empower the small person without a lot of resources. But I think also that the glocal philosophy is something that opens your eyes to possibilities and it suggests avenues for research for journalism that you wouldn’t otherwise see.  There’s a methamphetamine epidemic going on in Minnesota right now. It’s been going on for some years and it’s a terrible problem. But I’ve yet to see one story so far in Minnesota, except on my web site, explain that the methamphetamine epidemic started in Thailand and came to Minnesota and other places in the United States. And I’ve yet to see a really good story explaining how that happened, and how the Thai people responded to their epidemic pretty effectively, in ways that we could actually learn from in Minnesota.

GARFIELD: One of the advantages about writing about foreign events from Rochester, Minnesota is that you are not inhibited as a result of the many attacks on press freedom that occur where bad things are happening abroad. How much protection does reporting from the United States afford you?

MCGILL: Well, I think in the case of the Anuak genocide, for example, it’s enormous and definitive. I don’t worry about getting a knock on the door in the middle of the night, from a member of the Ethiopian defense forces.  And you can bet that I’d have a lot to worry about if I was publishing this in Ethiopia. We have such freedom in the press in the United States, and every day journalists have the opportunity to go out and write fearlessly about society and about the world. And I think that journalism as it’s practiced in the United States doesn’t use that freedom enough to the advantage of people who need it. The Internet gives us the possibility to use journalism in the United States to the advantage of people around the world who need these freedoms. We can write about problems in Ethiopia or Mexico or Russia or Iraq, and yet the stories can get written and widely distributed and they will be used by the local populations to improve their lives. In a sense it’s the facts carrying themselves.

GARFIELD: Doug, thanks very much.

MCGILL: You’re welcome.