Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Sara Miller Llana reporting in Mexico City in 2019.

‘What binds us together’: Sara Miller Llana on the generosity of sources (audio)

Learning what motivates the people she meets helps this reporter deliver the fullest possible versions of their stories. 

Sara Miller Llana on Finding What Matters

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I’ve worked with Sara Miller Llana for many years now, and it’s been a happy study in the kaleidoscope of qualities that make a great journalist. Curiosity, for sure. An eye for a good story. Energy, because the news stops for no one. And persistence – sometimes with a smile, sometimes leaning in on the grit.

But with Sara, there’s more: compassion and an unshakable commitment to listening to and understanding her sources. It’s something that radiates out from the stories she’s reported from three international posts.

When you listen to our conversation, as I hope you will, you’ll hear her appreciation for the people she interviews, her love for getting to know what matters to them, and her effort to convey that to you, her readers. She has boundless enthusiasm for diving into new subjects and tracking the shifts in more familiar ones. In the end, whether she’s writing about transracial adoptees or Canada’s “lobster wars,” it’s all about looking deeper, and with deep heart.

Episode transcript

Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to “Rethinking the News,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor. Here, we create space for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, to give you the information you need to come to your own conclusions. 

I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, one of the producers. This episode is part of a special series we’re doing for the holidays. We’ll be introducing you to Monitor reporters. Some of them have been working at the Monitor for decades, while others have only recently joined our roster. But they all share two things: they bring a fresh, balanced perspective to their reporting, and they find the humanity and compassion behind today’s headlines.

Today’s conversation is between the Monitor’s Canadian bureau chief, Sara Miller Llana, and our managing editor, Amelia Newcomb. They talk about Sara’s broad international experience, the value of being able to interview people in their own language, and finding meaningful and fresh angles to the stories that everyone is covering.


Amelia Newcomb: Hi, everyone, I’m Amelia Newcomb, the Monitor’s managing editor, and I’m talking today with Sara Miller Llana, our Canada bureau chief. Sara has been based in Toronto for almost three years now. And one thing I love about her beat is that it embraces Canada and all of the Americas from north to south, because she looks for themes and issues that cross boundaries. Now, I know that’s a lot of territory, but Sara brings a very practiced eye to this task. She’s been the Monitor’s Mexico City bureau chief and its Paris bureau chief. She’s covered all of Latin America, therefore, and also all of Europe. She’s watched dozens of countries at a time, operating in Spanish and French, as well as English. And she knows how to find the people and places that make us care about an issue.

I know that because I saw it in operation the first time I worked with Sara, which was more than 20 years ago now. She was a Fulbright fellow in Spain, and she pitched me a story about how the country was just starting a difficult examination of its history under its former dictator, Francisco Franco. Ultimately, it was a story about far more than Spain. It was about what we value as people, what our nations stand for, what we do under pressure. It was about what we like to call a Monitor story. So, Sara, how do you find those stories?

Sara Miller Llana: Well, at the most basic level, I’d say the job of a foreign correspondent is to explain different societies to our audience. But I always am looking to tell those stories through a lens of understanding. So no matter where I am – it might be a working class town in Canada or a small village in Mexico – those communities are always made up of parents, for example, who just want the best for their children, or small entrepreneurs hoping to make it big. So no matter where I am, how different a place or situation might be, I look for the things that sort of bind us together with those universal values and help us relate to one another.

I should note that that does come rather easily to me because I’ve always been a very curious person. I can drive my husband crazy, but I’ll ask people random questions like, what did they eat for breakfast that day? And even though that can be embarrassing, sometimes I, sometimes I find that those answers really end up humanizing a person. And I just – especially now in such a polarized time – I think it’s crucial that, you know, you might hold an opposing view to someone on a position. But like, in many ways, we share more values than not. And I think remembering that can really help us come to better solutions together.

Amelia: Yeah. And what you’re saying really speaks to one of the Monitor’s missions, which is to cover the news differently. In fact, we’re having this conversation on our new podcast called “Rethinking the News.” And Sara, you’ve always told me that you look for the story in places other people often don’t.

Sara: You know, on my beats there have been some of the biggest news of the day, so, that... I’m thinking about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or the Maidan protests in Ukraine. But even in a place that draws literally thousands of journalists from all over the world, I always have tried to avoid that pack. First of all, it’s not really what the Monitor does. We’re not trying to break what he or she said first. We’re really trying to understand what it means after it’s said.

So this summer, for example, when anti-racism protests were breaking out across Canada and the U.S. and Europe after the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., the protests here were really centered on taking down statues of Sir Johnny MacDonald, who is considered the founding father of Canada. But he also separated indigenous children from their families and sent them to boarding school. So he’s a very controversial figure. And the protests here were very heated. There was a lot of vandalism. There was some violence. And I decided not to cover the protests themselves. Instead, I waited. And I waited in particular in this one town where they were going to be taking down a statue. I waited actually until it was down. And I met a grandmother with her son who was sitting where it used to be, the statue used to be. And it just gave people time to reflect about whether having it down was actually a better thing or a worse thing. And I mean, it’s still polarized and it will remain that way. But it just allows you to get beyond the flashpoint of the news and help people understand all the points of view.

Amelia: So obviously, indigenous themes or issues were one of the things that you followed this year. Can you share a few of the other things you’ve been looking at this year and maybe what you think you might be looking ahead to as we enter 2021?

Sara: Sure. So there are certain themes that are very central to Canada like, indigenous issues, as you mentioned, environment and energy, the U.S.-Canada relationship. And that’s going to become even more interesting because the countries have responded so distinctly to the pandemic. But one of my main tasks here in Toronto is to connect dots between countries and issues around the globe. So I do that for North America. I also do that for the Americas at large.

But I also work with our reporters around the world to pull together what we call global reports. And because I did cover Latin America and Europe and I do speak Spanish and French, it’s easier for me to see some of the trends and attitudes on many different topics, so that might be pandemic responses. I did a story on underage drinking rates going down around the world, environmental issues, political polarization. And those reports, I think, are really central to our mission of helping understand the world and looking for places where people can learn from one another.

Amelia: Well, as you said, tying those dots together is a lot of what you do, but that can be a lot harder than it looks. And journalism, in fact, can be a little mysterious to people in terms of how you go about your job. So how do you go about your job?

Sara: Well, every story is very different. A lot of times that can include many obstacles that you’ll never see on the pages, whether that’s, you know, getting lost in foreign languages are getting stuck on a flooded road. But at the heart of it, it’s always about the participation of sources. And one thing I always tell my friends and family after 17 years with the Monitor, I continue to marvel every single day at how generous people are with their time and, you know, in opening up their lives to us.

So right now, I’ve been super fortunate because we’re doing a project about 21-year-olds around the world and how they’re living through the pandemic. And I’m spending time with a woman named Gracie, who you will meet very soon. She’s awesome. But she invited me to this water ceremony and she also invited my daughter, which was great. I love to take her on as many trips as I can. But we you know, we watched their community holding the ceremony, which was intended to say goodbye to the paddling season and in particular to this ancient canoe that they built out of birch bark. And I just stood there. It was on the shore of Georgian Bay and it was very spiritual. And it was in a way that I’ve never really experienced that. And I just, I felt so honored to be a participant there. And, you know, my job then is to take that awe that I was feeling in that moment – and in other stories, it might be a deep pain and suffering or joy – but to convey that to our readers so that we can then see the world in a more constructive way. Which, you know, especially now in such an uncertain time, I think is crucial.


Sam: Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, share it with your friends. Just search “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts. And to support more work like this, subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor. We’re offering discounted subscriptions this holiday season. Visit csmonitor.com/holiday for the details. This special rate will be active until early January, so sign up now! Again, that’s csmonitor.com/holiday.

This episode was produced by Ibrahim Onafeko, Jessica Mendoza, and me, Samantha Laine Perfas. Editing by Ibrahim Onafeko. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.