The General and the Particular

One of the perpetual challenges for any journalist is to figure out when a person or fact or event is somehow representative of some larger reality, and when the personality or information or situation is so specific that it only really tells us about itself. It’s a constant question when my colleagues and I go out into the world to do radio stories about workers and their jobs.

We’re trying to help our listeners understand what life is like for people to whom they may be connected but are unlikely to meet in person. And we’re trying to build a portfolio that, taken as a whole, reflects the richness and complexity of the world as it really is. But we’re also looking for good stories, with tension and conflict and drama – stories that will draw our listeners in, and make them care and remember.

Let’s say we want to profile an oil worker, or a miner, or a mail carrier, or a sex worker. Should we look for someone who is typical? Or someone who is remarkable? Or someone who is typical but especially articulate, or whose life is especially dramatic, or whose situation illustrates a point we want to make?

I did a profile of my Peruvian friend Marco, who had worked in textile factories since he was a teenager. Now he was trying to start his own business. I was there for the opening of his little factory, then followed up a year later to see how he did. It made sense thematically – Marco was a minor player in a huge global industry. And although his story wasn’t exactly action movie material, it had its dramatic elements – a main character who was trying to accomplish something, who faced serious obstacles, and whose situation developed over time. Because I knew him, I had a level of access I might not have gotten with a stranger. I think the story “worked.”

But if we’re producing a series about work in the global economy, and we’re going to do just one piece about a textile worker, is Marco really the person we should feature? Wouldn’t it be better to find, say, a female sewing machine operator trapped in a sweatshop somewhere? Marco was ambitious and highly skilled. He had three brothers who more or less shared his dream. He had an intelligent, strong-willed wife who was determined to rise above her own peasant origins. He had an aunt who was willing to give up the first floor of her house. He had cancer, which gave him a heightened sense of urgency. Every one of those details mattered. I wouldn’t say Marco was remarkable, really, but he wasn’t typical either. Should we have chosen someone else?

On the same visit to Peru I traveled to La Oroya, a town in the high Andes that is dominated by a giant smelter. La Oroya is one of the most polluted places on earth; in some neighborhoods, more than 90 percent of the children suffer from lead poisoning. But jobs at the smelter pay well and are highly coveted. I decided to look for someone who could shed light on the trade-off that so many workers face, not just in La Oroya but around the world, between a steady paycheck and personal hardship. I’m an experienced reporter, and it seemed like a clear enough brief.

There was, I soon discovered, a complicated back story. The U.S. company that owned the smelter only bought it ten years before, and much of the contamination was caused by earlier owners. There had been significant improvements, and more were promised. The great majority of townspeople were fiercely defensive of the plant. In fact, the day I arrived, an angry mob tried to throw government safety inspectors into the river. But activists insisted that the company wasn’t doing nearly enough. The government, too, was losing patience.

If I had been doing a standard feature story, it would have been fairly easy to present all this information and take a stab at sorting it out. But we were doing profiles, and our topic was work. I needed to find someone who worked at the smelter and who struggled to balance, every day, the benefits with the risks.

The company provided me with workers to interview; not surprisingly, they thought things were pretty peachy. Union leaders weren’t eager to help – they were more concerned that nosy journalists and government do-gooders might shut the plant down. Few of the smelter workers lived in the affected neighborhoods anyway. Those were populated by the poor and the unemployed.

It took me four days to find a man who worked at the plant, who lived very close, who was suffering from a serious lung ailment, and who was willing to speak up about it. His story was true, and it was dramatic, and it spoke to the larger issue of trade-offs that we were determined to address. But Pedro Córdoba wasn’t typical, at least for that town. I tried to make that clear in my radio piece, but the fact remains that the only metal worker in our series is a man whose situation and attitude were different than those of most of his coworkers. Was profiling him a responsible choice?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Certainly it would be irresponsible if all the workers in our series were dying of incurable diseases or toiling in subhuman conditions (or, for that matter, finding personal fulfillment). But it would be just as irresponsible to choose all our subjects for what they represent rather than for who they are. Because the fact is no one is typical. And that may be the most powerful point we can make in this series. The woman on sewing machine 7, row 15, is a different person from the woman on sewing machine 11, row 9. People aren’t types. Personalities matter. Circumstances matter. Details matter. For as literature shows us again and again, it’s only when we understand the particulars that the general becomes, well, true.