Covering the “Tamil ghost ship”: a laurel to the Globe

Ivor ShapiroWhen Canadians heard that a boatload of Tamil refugees was headed our way, reactions quickly divided between “Keep the queue-jumpers out” and “Welcome the huddled masses.” It was a good time for journalists to step forward and provide citizens not just with hard news, but context too. Ivor Shapiro thinks at least one national news organization has been doing just that.

It’s nearly twenty years since James Carey, the celebrated Columbia-based journalism scholar who died in 2006, published his much-cited and often-reprinted essay, “The Dark Continent of American Journalism.” By a “dark continent,” Carey meant mysterious but not unknown, and the mystery he explored in this now-iconic essay was the role of the questions why and how in news reporting.

Contrary to the classic ‘5W-1H’ formulation drummed into the head of every journalism student and most other people at some point, Carey was neither surprised nor disappointed that hard-news reporting often is more attentive to the questions who, what, when and where than those of why and how. He thought this not just inevitable, but desirable:

“The omission of the how and the insinuation of the why is… the standard practice of daily journalism. How could it be otherwise? … The how is clearly of less importance than the what, and in our culture the who, and can be relegated safely to subsequent sentences and paragraphs.

“At another, and deeper, level, answering how requires detailing the actual sequence of acts, actors and events that leads to a particular conclusion. How fills in a space; it tells us how an intention (the why) becomes an accomplishment (the what). How puts the reader in touch with the hard surfaces of human activity, the actual set of contingent circumstances…. When the description becomes fine-grained enough, how merges into why; a description becomes an explanation.

“Why answers to the question of explanation. It accounts for events, actions, and actors. It is a search for the deeper factors that lie behind the surfaces of the news story.”

While editors nearly everywhere continue to swear fealty to 5W-1H, its last two initials always get short shrift, even within the world’s best news organizations. And they always will – especially on the day the news happens. As Carey writes, “if we threw out all the stories in the [New York] Times that failed to answer the question “Why?” there wouldn’t be much newspaper left beyond the advertisements. Nonetheless, the why element attempts to make things sensible, coherent, explicable. It satisfies our desire to believe that the world, at least most of the time, is driven buy something other than blind chance….

“Why and how are what we most want to get out of a news story and are least likely to receive or what we must in most cases supply ourselves.”

But, far from condemning journalists for this reality of day-to-day and minute-by-minute hard-news reporting, Carey suggested a more sophisticated way of seeing things. Rather than judging coverage of events on the basis of a single story, we should look at the flow of coverage around and following those events – the entire “curriculum,” as he put it, of coverage:

“Journalism is, in fact, a curriculum. Its first course is the breaking stories of the daily press. There one gets a bare description: identification of the actors and the events, the scene against which the events are played out, and the tools available to the protagonists. Immediate and advanced work – the fine-grained descriptions and interpretations – await the columns of analysis and interpretation, the weekly summaries and commentaries and the book-length expositions. Each part of the curriculum depends on the other parts.

“It is a weakness of American journalism that the curriculum is so badly integrated and cross-referenced that each story starts anew, as if no one had ever touched the subject before. It is also a weakness of American journalism that so few of the students ever get beyond the first course. But keep things in perspective. It is similarly a weakness, say, of American social science….”

So, how are journalists doing in providing a “curriculum” of coverage of the voyage and August 20 arrival of 492 Tamils aboard the “ghost ship,” MV Sun Sea (formerly Harin Panich 19)? To pursue the academic metaphor, what grade shall we accord journalists for including a broadening sense of context – how and why – into the story?

In the case of the editors and reporters of the Globe and Mail, I propose an unambiguous A.

In addition to the introductory courses provided by the kind of extensive straight-news coverage of unfolding events that we’d all expect when a big national story hits, the Globe added loads of well-researched, insightful, and often beautifully written context to help citizens understand the complexity of the story and of the policy choices that surround mass migration.

Let me specifically recommend just a few of the advanced courses that the Globe offered in the days before and after the Sun Sea’s arrival in our waters:

Fate of ship steered by two forces – Ottawa and Tamil diaspora – More than a week before the ship arrives, Anthony Reinhart describes how “two Canadas scramble to respond” (August 12).
Strangers by sea: A tale of Canada’s boat people –Michael Valpy places the latest boatload in the dark historical context of “apprehension about the sea-borne Other” through past Canadian centuries (August 13).

Among the Tamils of Toronto, a tense wait for news – From Joe Friesen in Toronto (August 19th): “Anton Philip Sinnarasa sits with a phone in each hand. In front of him, a dozen sheets of white paper lined with black, handwritten notes bear the news that dozens of Tamil families in Toronto are desperate to hear. He is the keeper of the names, and he will be the one to break the news, good or bad….”

The “impossible” voyage of a Tamil ghost ship – Mark MacKinnon, in Songkhia, Thailand, reconstructs the rickety ship’s secret journey (Friday, August 20).

And, as an essential component of the program of study, we got a range of opinion and analysis of the implications for and of federal policy on refugee claimants, including: 
– Scott Newark: Tighter immigration laws will sink ‘refugee’ ships
– Rod Mickleburgh: Let’s stop the posturing about prospective refugees
– Lorne Waldman and Audrey Macklin: Why we can’t turn away the Tamil ships
– John Ibbitson and Marten Youssef: Boatload of migrants a wake-up call for Canada
– Editorial: Consider each Tamil refugee case on merit
-Editorial: Ending human smuggling

It’s a lot easier to throw darts than award laurels, and news people and organizations get tons of criticism on J-Source and elsewhere. But for once, how about we simply tip a hat toward journalists, at the Globe and elsewhere, who, at times when citizens are confused, concerned and conflicted about events and choices, do their job the way it’s supposed to be done.

Ivor Shapiro, the ethics editor of J-Source, is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and chairs the ethics advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.