In a hashtag, darkly

Matthew JohnsonIn a hashtag, darkly: How #Ottawapiskat turned the tables on media coverage of native issues

Over the last few months the Idle No More movement has succeeded in bringing Aboriginal issues to national attention. This has been due in no small part due to the movement's use of Twitter, where #IdleNoMore was a Trending Topic in both Canada and worldwide. [1] At the same time, another hashtag has been making the rounds which, while less widespread, is of particular interest for media educators. #Ottawapiskat, which was originated by Edmonton artist Aaron Paquette [2], criticizes the ways in which news coverage frames aboriginal issues by describing federal politics in the same terms, for instance "#Ottawapiskat chief is living in a mansion while many of his people are homeless" and "In a desperate bid to cling to power, Chief Harper shuts down #Ottawapiskat band council to avoid confidence vote, twice."

While the campaign has served largely as a vehicle to criticize the federal government (and the Prime Minister in particular), one of the most interesting things about it from the perspective of media educators is the way in which it forces us to think about the tropes and stereotypes we may not otherwise notice in news coverage of aboriginal issues. For one thing, it illustrates how what we don't see can be just as important as what we do see in media. As we've written elsewhere, news coverage of Aboriginal communities focuses almost exclusively on crises and tragedies, with the result that these negative stories are seen as part of a pattern of endemic corruption and mismanagement, rather than isolated examples. [3] By applying this frame to federal politics, #Ottawapiskat forces us to ask if we're seeing the whole picture.

Another major theme in the #Ottawapiskat tweets has been the way in which any coverage of Aboriginal issues is interpreted in "traditional" or "ritual" terms: "The Chief of #Ottawapiskat is resplendent in his traditional costume of blue sweater vest and cow boy hat head-dress" and " In #Ottawapiskat they have a ritual where they make a pilgrimage to summer camps on their Great Dead Queen's Day and drink!"

In this way the hashtag is reminiscent of Horace Miner's classic article "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema," which used then-current anthropological language and analysis to describe contemporary American society, in particular medical and oral care. Miner's point was that the definition of "ritual," and the distinction between a doctor and a "medicine man," was largely a matter of framing: by describing the United States in the 1950s in the same terms as an anthropologist might use to describe a tribal society in New Guinea – describing a medicine cabinet as a "shrine," or shaving as "scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument" – he was able to make it seem like one.

In the social media age, however, this kind of reversal can easily go out of control. A good example of this is the #Objectify hashtag, which was started by gaming journalist Leigh Alexander in order to make people think about how women are treated differently than men in news coverage (particularly in the tech field.) Rather than looking at overt examples of sexism, #Objectify was meant to show the gendered nature of coverage of women. As Alexander put it in the #Objectify FAQ, "Women using the internet as a platform for their ideas are more likely to be judged on their appearances than their work. Although sometimes descriptors about a woman's hair, style or smile are not intended to be disrespectful, they're actually irrelevant to her work and keep her feeling out-of-place in her field." [4] #Objectify aimed to draw attention to this by referring to male writers in the same way – "Great article on Final Fantasy XII-2 from the always-gorgeous Kirk Hamilton" – but Alexander eventually decided to cancel the event because it "runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point. #Objectify is not about celebrating objectification or about making people feel uncomfortable, but I'm increasingly worried that point will be lost and that harm can be done." [5]

The example of #Objectify illustrates why teachers should be careful when introducing this media literacy technique into the classroom. For one thing, it's easy for this approach to unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes, to make members of marginalized groups feel singled out (one of the reasons Alexander canceled #Objectify was that viewing men through a female-gendered lens would encourage homophobic comments) and to make members of the mainstream or dominant group feel as though they are being targeted or picked on rather than being encouraged to question their assumptions about race, gender and so on. The technique can be a powerful one, though, when a teacher is well-prepared and able to take a firm lead in class discussions. Here are some MediaSmarts resources that help teachers get their students to see media through different lenses:

Bias (Grades 10-12) introduces students to the idea that news coverage can carry very different messages depending on the point of view of the writers, editors and owners of the news outlet.

First Person (Grades 9-12) encourages students to consider the unquestioned assumptions found in different genres of video games, and to consider what games could be like when viewed through a different lens.

Who's Telling My Story (Grades 9-12) looks at the idea of portraying minority-group cha

For more information on how aboriginals are depicted in news and other media, see our section on Media Portrayals of Aboriginal People

[1] "Trending Topic '#IdleNoMore' (Hashtag) in World Wide."

[2] "Edmonton artist behind 'Ottawapiskat' hashtag on Twitter." CBC News Edmonton, Jan 15 2013.

[3] "Aboriginal People in the News." MediaSmarts.

[4] Alexander, Leigh. "The #Objectify FAQ." SexyVideoGameLand Blog, January 24 2013.

[5] Alexander, Leigh. "No More Objectification." Huffington Post, January 28 2013.