The danger of a single narrative

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Couple of weeks ago, up in Ely, I was sitting up late at night talking to my co-host Sharon Staat. Sharon lives in Chicago but visits Anne Swenson up in Ely twice a year – they’ve been friends for over 50 years! The details of our conversation escape me, but I remember it covered a broad swathe of subjects from immigration in America to concerns over terrorism to Native American history and women’s rights. It was all perfectly lovely till Sharon mentioned that she was a Republican. Not just the “I vote for the republican party” kind of Republican, but a proper “card carrying” member of the grand old party – she was a former head of a local chapter of the Republican Party somewhere in Indiana.

I was a bit taken aback, because Sharon’s views did not line up with what I thought I knew about Republicans – she is staunchly pro-choice (her family had celebrated Roe vs. Wade all those years ago), she is aggressively pro-immigration, and take it from an Indian – there was nothing bigoted or racist about anything she said in the two days I spent with her. Now, I must confess I haven’t actually met too many Republicans, most of my American friends are Democrats. Most of what I know about Republicans comes from mass media – what I read in newspapers or watch on television.

It struck me that people like Sharon – the moderate, middle ground, pro-choice republicans - are hardly ever quoted in the international sections of the newspapers I read back home. Over the last few years, the Republican portrayal in international news has been heavily focused on the extreme views of the tea-party types. What that has resulted in is a single narrative of the party and its supporters – extremely right wing on not just economics but a whole host of social issues. (I am not talking about the more in-depth reporting in newspapers and channels within America, but about the international news as printed or broadcasted in India, and other countries.)

A few years ago – I heard the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted talk titled “The danger of a single story.” In it, the author mainly discusses the danger of letting a single narrative define other people and other places. She talks about her encounter with her American roommate whose understanding of Nigeria is laughably limited, but she also goes on to speak about her own mistaken impression of Mexicans whose narrative has been wholly defined by reporting on illegal immigration. It’s hard to deny that as journalists we are often responsible for telling only a single story.

The evening after my conversation with Sharon, I got talking to one of Anne’s guests whose understanding of India was defined only by the gazillion stories she had read about sexual violence in the country. The fact that I drank wine and lived with my boyfriend did not fit in with her idea of the Indian woman – as one who is oppressed and limited by patriarchy (all of it while wearing colorful clothes and bangles!) Of course, I am responsible for creating that single narrative – I have lost track of the number of articles I have written, or television stories I have shot on this very subject, most of them for international audiences. I am lucky if an editor allows me a 1000 words or 3 minutes to tell this story – obviously it leaves me with no room to talk about Indian women who are breaking new ground in arts, music, science or literature, or to speak of the many wonderful and gentle Indian men I have known. Quite bluntly, it leaves me no rooms to talk about anyone who hasn't been victim. Which leads me to the question – As a news reporter, is it really my responsibility to create different narratives? Isn’t my story stronger when it focuses entirely on one narrative? For instance, wouldn’t a story about a brutal rape be diluted in its impact if I began speaking about gentle men?

I don’t have the answers, but I’ll tell you this, the issue came up again a few days later at our meeting with the Hmong-American foundation. We asked Bruce Thao, the director of programmes at the Hmong National foundation about his community’s portrayal in the media, and here’s what he said. “We only get written about if one of us kills someone or if one of us becomes valedictorian!”

For a vastly more articulate position on the danger of a single narrative, please take some time to hear the talented Ms. Adichie speak about it - www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story