How can Indigenous voices be better represented in the media?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report identified media as key players in supporting reconciliation. Would a shift in traditional reporting practices help buck a longstanding power imbalance?
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Journalists have power. They shape the story. They decide what questions to ask and of whom to ask them. They choose which quotes to use and how to use them. Those who appear in the story have none of that power.
The goal of a journalist, most would tell you, is to report the truth. But whose truth?
Canadian media have long reported one kind of truth about Indigenous peoples, which some say is distorted. In 1993, the Canadian Association of Journalists noted to a government commission — initiated in response to the Oka Crisis — that reports in Canadian media “often contain misinformation, sweeping generalizations and galling stereotypes about Natives and Native affairs … The result is that most Canadians have little real knowledge of the country’s Native peoples, or of the issues which affect them.”
And since then, things haven’t necessarily gotten much better. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report released this year states that “media coverage of Aboriginal issues remains problematic,” and calls on members of the media to take responsibility in seeking reconciliation for Canada’s residential school system.
But with the inherent power dynamic that exists with established standards in journalism, the question of exactly how media might improve isn’t just a matter of challenging racist stereotypes. It’s about how the media might go about inviting others into the storytelling process.
“I do not want to be racism’s poster girl”
In January 2015, Maclean’s magazine published its cover story “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst,” calling out Manitoba’s capital as the most racist city in Canada. The piece listed damning public opinion statistics and terrible accounts of injustice experienced by Winnipeg’s Indigenous citizens. It was an implicit call to action. Winnipeg — along with the rest of Canada — needed to start taking responsibility for its racism against Indigenous people.
On the cover of the magazine was the face of Rosanna Deerchild, host of CBC Radio’s Unreserved, an Aboriginal news program that recently began airing nationally. In the story, Deerchild appears in only one paragraph, where she describes harassment she has received on the streets of Winnipeg. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much?’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez,” she said. “Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”
In the photo on the cover, she stares straight ahead, stoic. A truncated version of the quote from the story — “They call me a stupid squaw or tell me to go back to the rez” — appears next to her in boldface type. It’s a powerful image — and one that Deerchild resented.
“I do not want to be racism’s poster girl,” she said, kicking off the Jan. 24, 2015 broadcast of Unreserved, two days after the issue hit newsstands. “I am far from the angry Indian complaining about being hard done by and Winnipeg is far from the place described in that story.”
In an email, Deerchild emphasized that she wasn’t given a choice in how she was represented by the magazine. “I didn’t write it, didn’t agree to be its cover girl nor did I have a large role in the piece beyond one line,” she wrote. She wasn’t interested in talking about the incident any further.
Maclean’s published a piece that attempted to describe the reality of being an Indigenous person in Winnipeg, yet Deerchild felt misrepresented. She didn’t recognize herself in those pages.
The same old story
Canadian journalism has a long history of repeating a particular kind of story about Indigenous people. This story legitimizes Canada as a nation that, unlike the United States, was established with fair treaties, not bloody conquest. This story teaches that Aboriginals willingly gave up their lands, eager to be civilized by white colonizers. This story tells us Indigenous peoples are innately inferior, they are stubbornly resistant to progress and their cultural extinction is a just cause.
In 1869, The Globe, a precursor to The Globe and Mail, longed for the inevitable end of the “Indian race," when "a higher state of civilization shall be established, and barbarism … shall disappear.” In 1885, the Calgary Herald made the case for genocide against the Blackfoot, calling them “thieves and murderers all.” In 1905, the Edmonton Journal described the Plains Cree as “wild, revengeful, and barbarous” people who “indulged in every sphere of vice or crime” and were mostly “utterly ignorant of anything higher than their own desires and passions.”
“It’s not surprising that we find racism in journalism in the past,” says Carmen Robertson, professor of fine arts at the University of Regina. What surprises people, she says, is that racism continues in today’s media, “often in more subtle and sophisticated ways to mask what is going on.”
Robertson and her colleague Mark Anderson authored Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, a historical study of how Indigenous people have been portrayed in the Canadian press from 1869 to 2005. The book details a long legacy of racism in the Canadian press.
Depictions of Indigenous people in today’s media still hint at their presumed inferiority to white Canadians, casting them as poor homeless alcoholics or the last descendants of a once proud people. When Robertson looks at Rosanna Deerchild’s photo on the cover of Maclean’s, she sees the same centuries-old pattern: Deerchild looks angry and keywords from the quote, placed alongside the photo, conjure racist tropes: Stupid. Rez. Squaw.
“People don’t necessarily read that statement, but they see those words and it reinforces the stereotype, even though that wasn’t the intent,” Robertson says. So, a piece seeking to expose deep-seated racism ends up inadvertently perpetuating racism itself.
“We can talk about ourselves”
Journalists control the story. But after centuries of misrepresentation and error, some question whether that ought to change. Salia Joseph wants Indigenous people to take control of their own stories.
Joseph is the host and producer of Mingling with Matriarchs, a radio show and podcast from CiTR 101.9 FM, the University of British Columbia (UBC)'s campus radio station. On the show, Joseph, who is Squamish, interviews other Indigenous women about their work and how their identities influence them. Joseph says the goal of the show is to have Indigenous women relate their own experiences, rather than have their narratives processed and packaged by someone else, like a journalist.
“Don’t talk about us if we’re here. We can talk about ourselves,” Joseph says.
By taking control of their own stories, Joseph says she and her guests are able to create different understandings of Indigenous women that are contrary to mainstream racist stereotypes.
Joseph started making the show as part of a research practicum for her undergraduate degree in First Nations and Indigenous studies. She makes it clear that Mingling with Matriarchs is not journalism. She uses an ethical framework of a researcher, not a journalist.
For example, Joseph has a long discussion with her guest before an interview is agreed to. She explains the aims of her project, how the material will be distributed and what might happen after the interview is broadcast and uploaded to the Internet. All questions are approved by the guest before the interview. After the interview is over, the guest listens to every edit of the show. They have final say over the broadcast and if they decide they want the recording pulled from the Internet, Joseph will take it down immediately.
While Joseph is not a journalist, she works in a journalistic medium, which makes it striking how her ethical decisions contrast with the typical protocols of a radio interviewer. Usually, all the power is in the hands of the journalist. Joseph does everything she can to share that power. She limits her own ability to craft the story and seeks to empower her guests instead.
“[Media] has been used very effectively to oppress and subordinate Native people. It’s been used as a tool to make people turn a blind eye to murdered and missing women, poverty and ongoing settler colonialism,” Joseph says. “This Indigenous [research] paradigm means making sure you’re not reproducing damaging power dynamics, making sure somebody who you’re interviewing feels safe and empowered.”
Joseph rejects the notion of journalistic objectivity. She says that mainstream media coverage is shaped by colonialism and relies on racist assumptions of Indigenous people — stereotypes that echo throughout Canada’s history.
“If you’re looking for ‘the truth’ you have to determine whose truth you’re looking for, because ‘the truth’ that has been sputtered out about Native people in the past is not true and it’s not objective,” Joseph says.
“Blame the facts”
Wawmeesh Hamilton, a journalist from Hupacasath First Nation, disagrees.
Hamilton is an associate producer for CBC Radio in Vancouver. He also has eight years of experience as a print reporter, writing for Metro Vancouver, Coquitlam Now and Alberni Valley News. He’s one of the few Aboriginal journalists working in the Lower Mainland.
He has never allowed a source to see questions before an interview or shared drafts of his stories before publication.
“As an Aboriginal person and a reporter who happens to be Aboriginal, yes, I agree that Aboriginal people have been misrepresented in the past. You don’t use that as a bargaining chip,” says Hamilton. He believes that reporting on Indigenous people is “just another beat” and ought be treated as such.
One reason Hamilton doesn’t share questions or drafts is practicality. In mainstream media, the news is produced on a strict deadline. He says giving up power to his sources would slow down the process considerably.
“You’re juggling one or two [assignments] a day. Sometimes three. My record from four years ago is 16 stories in a week. What do you think it’s going to do to the printing process if I painstakingly go over each story with each source?” Hamilton says.
The other reason Hamilton doesn’t share questions or drafts is his commitment to the facts. In his experience, when sources want to see drafts ahead of print, they’re mostly concerned with looking good — sugarcoating their words or redacting a slip-up.
“Sometimes accuracy is not flattering, but it’s the truth,” Hamilton says. “If you don’t like the facts, blame the facts.”
A different kind of journalism
Duncan McCue, correspondent for CBC’s The National, doesn’t share interview questions either.
McCue says, “It gives [the source] an opportunity to sit down and say, ‘What story do I want to tell?’” He doesn’t share early edits of his broadcasts either. For McCue, this conflicts with his goal as a journalist. Like Hamilton, he says his first allegiance is to the truth.
McCue, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, is regarded as an expert on how media reports on Indigenous groups. In its final report, the TRC quoted his description of editorial opinions as “often rooted in century-old stereotypes rather than reality.” He has created an online guide for journalists who report on Indigenous people and teaches a course modelled after the guide at the UBC School of Journalism.
McCue agrees that the power disparity between journalists and their sources is considerable. He agrees that the media’s power has been abused in the past and often continues to strain relationships with Indigenous communities today. In response to that, McCue says he teaches his students to be as transparent with their sources as possible. That doesn’t include sharing interview questions or drafts.
While he doesn’t believe in further opening up his own journalism, McCue says he thinks that there ought to be a kind of journalism that does. He says that in some ways, a journalist could find deeper truths if they shared their power. By working together to shape the narrative, a journalist could empower their source such that they might share their story in a way they never would have otherwise.
“They [would] feel so empowered that they [would] tell their story deeply within their soul,” McCue says.
Maybe that’s what journalists owe the people whose eradication was once explicitly supported by the press. Maybe it’s time journalists start asking Indigenous people how they want their stories told. Maybe instead of journalists telling Indigenous peoples’ stories for them, we could all tell our stories together.
Possible Canadas is a partnership of diverse organizations that share the goal of supporting forward-looking conversations about the future of Canada. The project is produced by Discourse Media and Reos Partners, in collaboration with RECODE and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Partners’ support does not imply endorsement of the views represented.