Miranda Johnson on assignment in Marawi, the Philippines
The Economist writer on the unglamorous life of a foreign correspondent, avoiding insurgents and sea snakes, and how Catlin Gabel inspired her mantra, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”
What experiences have you had as an international journalist that have influenced your thinking or perspective?
I’ve had some frightening experiences on reporting trips, and I’ve visited some troubled places. During my time in Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines which I went to in the wake of its capture by ISIS-linked insurgents, I could barely sleep at night. Maintaining vigilance was my constant concern. It didn’t help that the team guiding me joked about how the last journalist they had worked with ended up getting shot in the neck (he survived). After that experience I am in awe of war correspondents but would never want to be one.
Far more often on my reporting trips the kindness and generosity of total strangers has emerged. There are pieces I would never have written without the help of academics, fixers, activists, and so many others I contacted out of the blue. They have been the people who turned up at remote airports or tiny docks in order to show me around or translate the local language. Some of them kept me alive in all probability. A guide from the World Wide Fund for Nature once saved me from a very close encounter with a sea snake!
Your work reaches millions, including global leaders and policy makers. Does this knowledge change how you approach stories?
It’s a delight when you find out that someone you admire or respect has read your work. I remember that my coverage of the COP21 climate talks was well received, and it meant a lot to me. But I think that whether you are writing for millions or for a dozen, your approach shouldn’t really change. You still need to speak to as many people, on as many sides, as possible and maintain the highest standards of accuracy. In the current environment of media mistrust anything less is unacceptable.
You’ve lived in the U.S., Singapore, and the U.K. What have you gained from immersing yourself in different cultures?
One of the things that moving to Portland and to Catlin [Johnson’s family moved to Portland from England when she was in 11th grade] first taught me was that the world was a whole lot larger than I had really realized. My years living abroad since have developed that feeling. As a journalist that’s exciting because my role is to amplify other voices, narratives and experiences. And there are so many millions of them out there to learn from.
During the pandemic lockdowns around the world, there were important discussions around mental health and loneliness. That resonated with me because moving countries by myself exposed me to intense loneliness of which I had no concept while growing up (siblings, parents, and pets were always around). It didn’t fit at all with the glamorous stereotypes of life as a foreign correspondent that filled my head as I packed my bags. You learn how to establish routines and how to make yourself happy in small ways. That teaches you a lot about your own capabilities.
Were there experiences at Catlin Gabel that still resonate with you?
Coming from a British school, I was used to a system in which work you did at home after class was a rather dull means of consolidating material. It blew my mind when I first arrived at Catlin that, for several of my classes, studying I completed outside of the classroom was in preparation for future lessons. This flipped model meant I felt empowered because I could immediately see why I needed to complete assignments. The onus was on me to ensure I was ready to be taught the next day. It’;s a bit corny, but one of my personal mantras even now is “fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
One of the things I appreciated very much was the responsiveness of the school and its staff to my interests and needs as an individual. Always interested in the humanities, Catlin Gabel allowed me to pursue a curriculum that centered on them in a way that engaged me entirely.
I think that allowing young people to take ownership of their own education is vital. Doing so fosters self-confidence and provides motivation. I don’t imagine that many people reading this who knew me at the school will be surprised to hear that I’ve become a journalist. I’m very grateful that I was always encouraged to pursue my interests as they have led me to a career I love.