Bring your questions – I’ll bring mine!

“What do you know about Finland?” a friend asked me recently. I had just told him I was lucky enough to go there for three weeks this summer.

“Quite a bit,” I replied confidently.

I listed the staggering statistics: world-leading in press freedom, gender equality and transparency. Not doing too badly in education either.

My friend seemed impressed.

“The landscape is jaw-dropping, the standard of living on a very high level and all the Finns I have met so far are incredibly nice,” I added.

“Wow, it must be hard to report on a country like that,” my friend said.

A few days later, I realised he was right. Finns should be happy about their country – and in fact they are: They are sixth in this year’s World Happiness Report (yes, some more statistics!).

This is great news for people living in Finland, but possibly bad news for journalists. Even though we certainly like good news and positive examples, the stories with real impact often are the ones with an element of conflict and surprise. How could I find this in Finland? Well, maybe Finland’s success is the surprise!

Let us go back a bit: Finland gained its independence less than 100 years ago and fought both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. At this point in history, only few would have suspected Finland would turn around its agrarian economy to become one of the world’s most successful countries 50 years later.

Michael Ertl
Michael Ertl

Finland has also become a key member of the European Union after joining in 1995. Its core role might now seem normal to young Europeans, but Finland had been at Europe’s periphery for a long time. In geographical terms: Helsinki is 300 kilometres from St. Petersburg and 900 from Moscow – but 1,100 from Berlin and 1,800 from London.

And nowadays? Tensions between Russia and the west are at their worst since the Cold War and Finland finds itself in the middle of it. The country also has to give its struggling economy a new boost, while Finns will be eager to maintain their welfare state.

Will Finland once again surprise the world and succeed? At least, I have now found my question for the three weeks. Answering it alone might be too big challenge for me, so I am very grateful that I will be with a group of smart and talented journalists from across the world. We will all bring our questions and try to help each other to find the answers.

By the way, the next time I see my friend I will tell him: “I actually do not know that much about Finland yet, but I will find out.”

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Author: Michael - United Kingdom

Michael Ertl comes from Germany, and is employed by the BBC World Service in London. “Knowing a country well is the key to balanced, fair and objective journalism. From my daily work as a broadcast journalist and from previous reporting trips abroad, I have come to understand that no amount of research can replace experiencing a country first-hand.”

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