The Importance of Media Education

Media education can help young people put current images and messages about Aboriginal people into perspective by helping them understand how the media work, why stereotyping exists, how decisions are made and why “it matters who makes it.” Media education is not about learning the right answers; it’s about consuming media images with an active, critical mind and asking the right questions.

The website Groupe autochtone de surveillance des médias (Aboriginal media monitoring group) describes its objectives as follows: ”Due to a number of blunders by media (in particular V-Télé, formerly TQS) on Aboriginal issues, we have decided to develop a way to better inform ourselves about these blunders and then plan how we will act. The purpose of this is to educate the media and present them with the Aboriginal perspective on the issue. Here is how to write your observations on the page when you hear derogatory or untrue remarks and comments about Aboriginals:

  1. The remarks made
  2. Who said them
  3. The date and time
  4. The newspaper, website or radio/TV station on which they appeared
  5. The email address of the newspaper, website or radio/TV station

This way group members will be able to intervene directly with the media and include this information in their emails to the media in question.”

Noticing the sometimes difficult relationships between Aboriginals and journalists, the Canadian Institute decided to organize an Aboriginal summit in October 2010 in Montreal in order to investigate actions that could be taken to improve the image of Aboriginals in media. Many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal journalists and political leaders followed one another on the first day of the conference to ask a few key questions:

  • What is the journalist looking for to build his or her report?
  • How is information collected and sorted?
  • What are the journalist’s moral and legal obligations?
  • How can we arrive at an accurate account?
  • What is the Aboriginal community’s role in improving its relationships with the media and what can it do to make the most of a postive image among government, industry and the public?
  • What is the community’s role in providing information to the media?
  • How can someone prepare to answer questions from the media and manage the information provided?
  • To be in good faith: to what extent?
  • Language: An obstacle to overcome
  • Crisis in the Aboriginal community? What practical measures can be adopted in this situation?
  • What communication structure should the community adopt internally to improve communication with the media on a daily basis?
  • How important is it to have a structure that handles communications?
  • Is it better to put a team in charge of communications or have only one spokesperson?
  • Numerous prejudices circulate in the media and throughout the population about Aboriginal people. Can these images be changed? Do we really understand the impact on the community? How can we get there?

Here are a few points in response:

  • Provide both sides of the issue
  • Deal with local and national media simultaneously
  • Ensure adequate preparation for media interviews given by chiefs and other Aboriginal community representatives in order to prevent blunders.
  • When providing the inteviews, whether for a written, spoken or televised media, advance preparation is crucial.
  • It is not only key to adequately anticipate the points that will be covered but also to understand the steps to take in terms of behaviour. This presentation will allow you to draw on concrete tips when it comes time to participate in an interview.

In order to educate the media, here are a few examples of the types of questions that could lead to a better understanding of the Aboriginal representations depicted on TV and in movies.

Who selected or created these images and stories? Why does it matter who made these selections?

The first lesson in media education is that nothing is objective—each and every media production is created with a viewpoint and for a purpose. The “reality” depicted in film or television productions is the result of many choices and each of these choices is based on the experience, knowledge and bias of the producers involved. To date, very few films and TV shows featuring Aboriginal people have been written or produced by Aboriginal people—and it shows.

Whose voices are being heard? And whose voices are absent? Why?

The ownership of a TV station or newspaper, the makeup of its management team and its political leanings will all have an impact on who is interviewed on a current affairs program, which “experts” are chosen for sound bites on an issue, and whose perspectives are ignored completely. When Aboriginal voices are heard, it’s almost always on Aboriginal issues and rarely on general topics affecting society as a whole.

Why are certain stories selected for the news and others not?

A groundbreaking land treaty may get much less coverage than a group of Aboriginal people setting up a blockade. Blockades and the potential for violence have visual appeal for television; men and women negotiating around a table doesn’t. Likewise for sensational stories on murders, prostitution and drug abuse: they keep the ratings up, and high ratings mean good advertising revenues. Newscasts have to move along quickly and stereotyping is a kind of shorthand that people can comprehend without explanation. Understanding how the news works isn’t going to change the news, but it does help kids understand that “newsworthy” stories are not necessarily the most important stories. Comparing the news coverage of APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) with that of a national television network provides a strong lesson in media voices and behind-the-scenes decision-making.

Are Aboriginal people shown as real human beings in films and TV programs or do they seem wooden and two-dimensional?

Media producers, especially those in Hollywood, have used Native people to tell White people’s stories for generations. Rarely are Native characters given complex personalities or autonomous roles. Rarely do they rely on their own values and judgements, or act upon their own motivations. Although efforts have been made to undo this tradition, old stereotypes die hard.

Do depictions in movies and TV shows respect tribal, cultural and regional differences?

Anyone with knowledge of the various Aboriginal cultures will pick out outrageous and often amusing inaccuracies—tipis where longhouses were used, horses where foot-and-canoe travel was the norm, feather headdresses on the Pacific coast. Distinctions in dress, language, abodes and beliefs of the many Aboriginal cultures are often ignored in favour of a shorthand that “speaks” to the audience. This may be due to laziness, ignorance or the desire to use visual props that will be recognized by audiences and visually arresting onscreen.

Do Aboriginal people speak in a “normal” way?

A convenient convention of the old Westerns was to have Native people speaking in broken English, their thoughts and emotions restricted to their limited knowledge of English (and, it was usually implied, to their limited intellect). This tendency toward simplification has extended in some degree to modern-day characterizations of Aboriginal people. If set in the past, the script should at least show Aboriginal characters speaking fluently in their own languages. There are over 350 different North American Aboriginal languages—a fact unacknowledged by the film industry.

Did the North American Aboriginal only exist between 1830 and 1880 and only on the American Plains?

With few exceptions, Hollywood seems to have thought so. Native tribes flourished for thousands of years before the coming of Europeans and today there are over a million Canadian Aboriginal people and nearly two million Native Americans—some on reserves and others in rural and urban communities. Where and how are their realities in today’s society depicted by the media?

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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