Indigenous people in the news

Warning: This website content deals with topics that may cause trauma, including discussions of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, which may be triggering. We encourage users to practice good self-care and access the support resources provided, as needed.

The Hope for Wellness Help Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for counselling and crisis intervention for Indigenous people across Canada. Call the toll-free Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.

More than anything else in media, news coverage influences what people and which issues are part of the national conversation and how those issues are talked about.[1] When it comes to Indigenous people and communities, constitutional issues, forest fires, poverty, sexual abuse and drug addiction sometimes appear to be the only topics are reported in the news.

Indigenous people are even more rarely positioned in mainstream media as experts or commentators on major issues of public interest. An exception to this was an initiative in 2010, where the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir published exchanges of letters and opinions between Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador and Manon Barbeau, founder of Wapikoni Mobile. In this correspondence, the two authors engaged in a comparative analysis of the issues and challenges they face to establish a solid, sustainable reconciliation process between Indigenous people and the Quebec population.

Although this series of exchanges made it possible for Picard to emphasize the Indigenous point of view, it was motivated by a tragedy—a fire that ravaged the territory adjacent to the Wemotaci reserve (Haute-Mauricie, Quebec) and forced the evacuation of 1,300 residents. In other words, this debate became newsworthy only because of a larger sensational news event.

The fundamental nature of news and news reporting depends on bad news to garner ratings, which means that tragedies, conflicts and crises get reported and success stories rarely do. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why a non-Indigenous audience might come to the conclusion that Indigenous people are a troubled, plagued and contentious people. Rudy Platiel, who spent 27 years covering the Indigenous beat for The Globe and Mail, notes that, “Nine times out of 10, what’s happened is there’s a great deal of reporting on conflict, but you don’t really get the background on what the heck is going on.”[2] Jean La Rose, former CEO of Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), also points out that the attention brought by bad news quickly moves on: “When the Charlottetown Accord was going on, Indigenous people were the darlings of the news reels and every word the national chief put out was fully reported, but when that fell apart, we disappeared.”[3]

Besides influencing how other Canadians see Indigenous people and issues, this kind of coverage can have a powerful impact on Indigenous people themselves. One witness at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described seeing news coverage of the deaths of two people in her family: “I was just a kid at the time, but I remember her bloody, knife-torn clothing being displayed on the news. That image stayed with me since then. It traumatized me. I never understood why this was done. What purpose did it serve? None. This was only the beginning of the media circus that began and brought more suffering and pain to an already difficult situation.”[4]

There are a number of reasons for poor reporting on Indigenous issues. Journalists have tight deadlines, and are rarely given adequate time to thoroughly investigate issues; the gatekeepers of newsrooms and newspapers are seldom well-versed in Indigenous affairs; and there is a limited number of experienced Indigenous journalists. Lack of representation among journalists is particularly troubling: in 2019 the CBC reported that just 2.1% of its permanent staff were Indigenous,[5] compared to 4.9% of the total population.[6] While newspapers are often reluctant to share information about diversity in their newsrooms, one study has found white people actually became more over-represented among columnists between 1998 and 2018.[7] To compound this, there is often a lack of interest among non-Indigenous journalists covering Indigenous issues: in 2015-2016, just half of one per cent of news stories in Ontario had to do with Indigenous people, topics or issues.[8]

All of these factors contribute to the perpetuation of incomplete and, in some cases, distorted information. One of the most notorious examples of journalistic bias in reporting on Indigenous issues remains the Oka Crisis. In the summer of 1990, Mohawks in the town of Oka formed a barricade to protest the expansion of a golf course onto Indigenous lands and burial grounds. Over a period of 78 days, mainstream press coverage was dominated by images of fierce Indigenous “warriors”, with stories focusing on the threat of present and future violence from angry, lawless young men. The media constructed what Indigenous scholar Gail Guthrie Valaskakis called “exaggerated monolithic representations of Indigenous activists” that mobilized 4,000 soldiers and police.[9] Valaskakis notes that while “the summer of crisis in Quebec is remembered in startling images of rock-throwing townspeople… staring soldiers and crying children,” nevertheless “in all the media coverage, one image emerged as salient in the Mohawk crisis: the image the ‘Warrior’ – bandanna-masked, khaki-clad, gun-toting Indians who dominated the news.”[10]

The Oka standoff highlights another problem relating to reporting of Indigenous issues. Non-Indigenous journalists are often put in an untenable position: if they go into an Indigenous story “cold,” they may encounter resistance and/or get the story wrong; but if they do their preliminary research and work to gain community trust, they may be accused of being “biased” or “too close” to the story. Likewise, Indigenous journalists may be limited professionally to covering “Indigenous beats” and then be criticized for their “pro-Indigenous” bias: journalist Waub Rice describes the tension he felt when covering the Idle No More protests between “frustrations from my peers in the community that wider coverage is falling short” and viewers who “may call my objectivity into question simply because I’m a visibly Anishinaabe person reporting on an unprecedented Indigenous cultural movement.”[11]

Nor do Indigenous communities themselves always cooperate in telling their story, feeling – often with good reason – that they have been misrepresented or disrespected by news coverage in the past. One witness before the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described how she felt pressured to give an interview before the three days’ mourning customary in Inuit culture had passed.[12] Stories like these were the inspiration for Reporting in Indigenous Communities, a program that provides journalists with resources including a guide and checklist of best practices for covering Indigenous issues, such as “looking beyond pow-wows, cultural gatherings, and National Indigenous Peoples Day for story ideas” and “finding out what Indigenous people [are] saying on Facebook and Twitter” about the topic.[13]

More and more, though, Indigenous people are telling their own news stories. In 2011, APTN’s investigative journalism department – represented by the series APTN National News and APTN Investigates – was brought into the mainstream spotlight when it broke a national story about improper lobbying by a former staffer at the Prime Minister’s Office, and APTN remains a key source of broadcast and online news on Indigenous issues.

The CBC Indigenous home page.

CBC Indigenous, which launched in 2014, has also served as a venue for Indigenous journalists to centre their own stories. Connie Walker, a journalist who was involved in its launch, explained that the online format made it easier to foreground Indigenous voices by showing there was a demand for them: “I think it’s something people have said traditionally, when you do something for television or radio, that the public has a limited appetite for indigenous stories. But … stories about indigenous people actually get a lot of hits, not just from indigenous people, and on top of that indigenous audiences are more connected than they’ve ever been, especially through mobile.”[14] Even satirical news outlets such as the Onion and the Beaverton now have their Indigenous equivalent, Walking Eagle News – founded by an Indigenous reporter with decades of experience at both CBC and APTN.[15]

Unfortunately, digital news has a dark side as well. Kerry Benjoe, reporter at the Regina Leader-Post, has said that Indigenous people often receive abuse from online commenters when they appear in the news, and other Indigenous journalists have said that they avoid reading comments on their stories for the same reason.[16] Similarly, CBC found that stories on Indigenous issues “draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines.”[17] When discussion of news stories about Indigenous people moves to other online spaces it tends to go the same way: one analysis of Reddit discussions about Colten Boushie – a Cree man who was fatally shot by a white man (later acquitted on murder and manslaughter charges) – found that “the majority of comments implied that Canada’s Indigenous populations receive preferential treatment; those comments that challenged this prevailing view were summarily rejected and ‘downvoted into oblivion.’”[18] While journalists are making progress in covering Indigenous issues and communities with respect, it would seem that news consumers still have a ways to go.

Next section

Resources for parents

Resources for teachers

 

[1] Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven models of framing: Implications for public relations. Journal of public relations research, 11(3), 205-242.

[2] Cole, Y. (2010) Marginalized Voices in a Changing Media Environment: an Analysis of Aboriginal News Strategies. (Master’s thesis.) Carleton University. Retrieved from https://curve.carleton.ca/system/files/etd/7cc5254e-0c57-4f5f-9c3d-905e600851d4/etd_pdf/4435774a5cd7a17fda86757be69dc99c/cole-marginalizedvoicesinachangingmediaenvironment.pdf

[3] Craig S. (2017) “Indigenous media audiences are bigger than ever, but – like others in the industry – profits remain elusive.” Financial Post. Retrieved from https://financialpost.com/news/indigenous-media-audiences-are-bigger-than-ever-but-profits-remain-elusive

[4] Joanne A. (English River First Nation, Treaty 10),(2019) Testimony to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

[5] (2019) Employment Equity Annual Report. CBC/Radio-Canada. Retrieved from https://site-cbc.radio-canada.ca/documents/impact-and-accountability/diversity-inclusion/2019-employment-equity-report-en.pdf

[6] (2018) “National Indigenous Peoples Day… by the numbers.” The Daily. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/dai/smr08/2018/smr08_225_2018

[7] Malik, A., & Fatah S. (2020) “Newsrooms not keeping up with changing demographics, study suggests.” The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/newsrooms-not-keeping-up-with-changing-demographics-study-suggests-125368

[8] (2019) Buried Voices: Changing Tones. An Examination of Media Coverage of Indigenous Issues in Ontario. Journalists for Human Rights. Retrieved from https://jhr.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/JHR-IRP-Report-v3online.pdf

[9] Valaskakis, G.G. (2000). Blood borders: Being Indian and belonging. In P. Gilroy, L. Grossberg & A. McRobbie (Eds.), Without guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall( pp. 388-394). London: Verso.

[10] Valaskakis, G. (1994). Rights and warriors: First Nations, media and identity. ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 25(1).

[11] Rice, W. (2013) “Indigenous journalists need apply: #IdleNoMore and the #MSM.” Canadian Media Guild. Retrieved from https://www.cmg.ca/en/2013/01/29/indigenous-journalists-need-apply-idlenomore-and-the-msm/             

[12] Micah A. (Inuit, Talurjuaq) (2019) Testimony to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

[13] Reporting on Indigenous Communities. (n.d.) “Reporter’s Checklist.” Retrieved from https://riic.ca/reporters-checklist/

[14] Craig S. (2017) “Indigenous media audiences are bigger than ever, but – like others in the industry – profits remain elusive.” Financial Post. Retrieved from https://financialpost.com/news/indigenous-media-audiences-are-bigger-than-ever-but-profits-remain-elusive

[15] Daubs, K. (2020) “The man behind the satirical Walking Eagle News finally says the things he never could as a journalist.” The Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/01/10/the-man-behind-the-satirical-walking-eagle-news-edges-close-to-the-line-finally-saying-things-he-never-could-before.html

[16] Watson, H.G. (2016) “Indigenous journalists are changing the news in Saskatchewan.” J-Source. Retrieved from https://j-source.ca/article/indigenous-journalists-are-changing-the-news-in-saskatchewan/

[17] CBC Audiences Services. (n.d.) “Why aren’t most Indigenous-related stories open to comments?” Cbc,ca. Retrieved from https://cbchelp.cbc.ca/hc/en-ca/articles/360035784114-Why-aren-t-most-Indigenous-related-stories-open-to-comments-

[18] Project Someone. (2019) Research Brief; Indigenous Relations in Canada. Retrieved from https://projectsomeone.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/INDIGENOUS_Feb2019.pdf 

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.

Learn More