Bridging the divide: covering Sri Lanka one story at a time

Lesley Ciarula Taylor

Lesley_TaylorThe 60 or so people who turned out for the recent discussion of “Sri Lanka: Conflict and Coverage,” sponsored by the South Asian Journalists Association, PEN Canada and Ryerson University, did actually laugh at my first attempt at a joke.

One of the many volumes I got from the anti-Tamil Sri Lankan United National Association called itself a history of the island.

The Greek cartographer Claudius Ptolemy was among the first to chart the island in 150 AD, it said, but he made no reference to a separate people and gave no importance to the north.

Proof positive, then, that there was no historical basis for a separate Tamil homeland.

The Toronto Star had never reported this fact, I admitted, and most likely never would.

The next exchange didn’t go nearly as well.

Veering away from the carefully planned format of written questions, a man stood up and asked, “Why doesn’t the Star cover Sri Lanka?”

We do, I replied, and flipped open my notebook to the numbers: 65 stories so far this year, including nine by Rick Westhead, our correspondent on the subcontinent; 89 last year, 121 the year before.

“There are 50 people dying every day in Sri Lanka. Why aren’t you reporting that?”

I looked at him and 33 years of experience zipped through all possible explanations. But he deserved the flat-out truth.

We’re not going to cover Sri Lanka every day. Not even now, when the 30 years of war between the government and the Tamil Tigers seems in its final stages.

Journalists tend not to like explaining what they do and it’s not just arrogance. A lot of people have fixed notions of our foibles and weaknesses and there isn’t much we can say to shake that. If anything, online commenting has made me believe that even more.

I’m fortunate that many years as a reporter, an editor and in management have taught me not to take any of it personally. Even my brother, a fan of Rush Limbaugh, believes in a worldwide journalism conspiracy.

So after the first three panelists trashed mainstream media for its negativity, its shallowness and its deep-seated whiteness, I figured it was worth a shot to try to explain.

In late January, there was a rally in Toronto to protest violence in Sri Lanka. At the rally with tens of thousands of Tamils, there were tens of thousands of stories, but no way to tell them all. As soon as I started talking to someone, the network mobilized. Four young people, Canadian-raised and able to talk in sound bites, were there to answer my questions. We talked and then I wandered around until people stopped dragging small children over to talk to me.

I struck up a conversation with a group of young women who felt sorry for me because I couldn’t wear gloves and take notes.

But they did tell me their stories.

It still baffled me, though, how any group could get that many people out on the street. So I tracked down a Tamil woman, a psychologist, who could describe how the trauma Tamils have gone through creates a group suffering bond.

When I’m doing a story as one of the Star‘s two immigration reporters and I’m thinking, “I don’t quite understand this,” my only recourse is to find someone else and interview them. I keep talking to more and different people because every point of view helps colour in the picture — and remind me that no nationality is homogenous.

I take all the help I can get to understand the nuances. My friend and colleague, Bagashree Paradkar, who launched the Star‘s now-defunct south Asian magazine Desi Life, explained that a south Asian saying 90 or 99 per cent was just a figure of speech. It means nothing more than a lot.

It helps to understand my own biases, as well. My Australian mother loathed chronic whining — whingeing, the Aussies called it, mostly by the English. Your arm could drop off and she didn’t want to hear it. She would fix it — just don’t whine about it. So I find complaining peculiar, but I have to recognize that some cultures complain by habit. Canadians, for example.

We try to get inside communities and tell their stories but there is a double-standard often in play. Yes, there are real stories to be done about abuse in south Asian families. But there are a startling number of journalists my age who grew up in Scots-Irish families with one or two alcoholic and abusive parents. We’ve never written that story because, quite frankly, they think it was normal.

Things are improving, but the biggest difficulty remains the us-and-them. We are mesmerized by the story of Amandeep Dhillon because those of us who aren’t from a Punjabi village and stuck in an arranged marriage are reassured that we are superior.

Possibly the most enlightened journalist I know when it comes to bridging the divide is Jennifer Bain, the Star‘s food editor. if you say breakfast to Jennifer, who had a relatively conventional anglo Canadian upbringing, she will not automatically think of bacon and eggs. She will think of rice congee, Jamaican pudding, Indonesian spicy noodles, Japanese fish and seaweed. They are all breakfast.

This is what we need to achieve, one story at a time. To think like Jennifer Bain.

Lesley Ciarula Taylor has been a journalist for 33 years in three countries for newspapers and wire services. An immigrant who’s married to an immigrant, whose mother was an immigrant and whose grandparents were immigrants, she took a break from nine years of newspaper management to return to reporting and cover the immigration beat for The Toronto Star.