Media portrayals of missing and murdered Indigenous women

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.

That Indigenous women are likely to be victims of violence is not news: Indigenous women aged 25 to 44 are five times more likely to suffer a violent death than other women in Canada.

Amnesty International[1],[2] and the Native Women’s Association of Canada[3],[4] have documented more than 500 cases of Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered since the 1960s. Half of the cases have never been solved. In the National Inquiry’s 2019 report into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), “Reclaiming Power and Place,” media coverage of the missing women is described as “unfair, inaccurate or distorted.”[5]

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women have long argued that media pays less attention when missing and murdered women are Indigenous than when they are white.  Media have responded to this criticism in a variety of ways: from incorporating the criticism in their coverage to placing blame on victims or denying that the problem exists.  When serial killer John Martin, who preyed on Indigenous women in Saskatoon, failed to grab national headlines, an editorial in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix argued the race of the victims was not a factor, saying instead that the case received little coverage because the murders occurred in a small town and there was no compelling storyline. However, in his book Just Another Indian: A Serial Killer and Canada’s Indifference,[6] journalist Warren Goulding argues that had the victims been white, the story would have drawn national media attention. Other reporters have said that small travel budgets in newsrooms, families who are unwilling to speak to media and a lack of leads or new details that would otherwise keep a story alive are to blame.

In her article Highway of Tears Revisited,[7] journalist Adriana Rolston says that critics pointing to a media bias against Indigenous victims may have a point. Rolston reviewed the media coverage of the 18 women who disappeared on the “Highway of Tears” and concluded that “their criticism may be valid. The first time papers like The Globe and Mail, the Edmonton Journal and The Vancouver Sun really covered the Highway of Tears was in 2002, when [Nicole] Hoar, a 25-year-old [White]… woman, vanished.”[8] Until that time, police had never released the race of the victims, but Rolston’s review of earlier coverage showed that before Hoar’s disappearance reporters had mistakenly believed all the victims were Indigenous when, in fact, eight were white. Kate Rexe, who worked on the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC)’s Sisters in Spirit campaign at the time, noted that only after tragedy struck a white woman did the media begin focusing attention on the lost Indigenous women, but in terms of the amount of coverage she says the media gave the Indigenous women “footnote status”.[9]

Some question if Indigenous identity is the sole cause of the bias, or if other factors are at play. Studies in the United States have shown that missing women receive less coverage if they are racialized and are more likely to receive no media coverage at all.[10] Scholars call this bias “missing White woman syndrome,” which divides victims into stereotypes of women who are newsworthy victims and fallen women who are not.[11] John Lowman’s study “Violence and the outlaw status of (street) Prostitution in Canada”[12] examined the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of sex trade workers from 1964 to 1999. He showed that up until 1985, news coverage portrayed sex trade workers as nuisances and criminals, often urging police and city officials to enforce laws to keep them away from “good neighborhoods.”[13] Violence against sex trade workers was never covered before 1975, and only rarely up to the late 1980s, even after a number of women began vanishing from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. Media coverage became more empathetic toward these women largely due to pressure from the families of the victims. In her book On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women,[14] journalist Stevie Cameron credits three reporters at the Vancouver Sun with raising the profile of the missing women and creating enough public empathy to pressure the Vancouver Police Department into launching a serious investigation that ultimately led to Pickton’s arrest. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s research, roughly half of the missing Indigenous women in their database are not sex trade workers.[15]

Kristen Gilchrist’s study “‘Newsworthy’ Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered [Indigenous] and White Women”[16] demonstrates that even when the missing Indigenous women are girl-next-door types they still receive less coverage, and less sympathetic coverage, than white victims. Gilchrist chose to study media coverage of six missing women, three Indigenous and three white, who fit a “pure woman” stereotype to eliminate other potential causes of bias: all six women were close to their families, and none were involved with drugs or the sex trade. Gilchrist found that six times more stories appeared about the white women, usually accompanied by large photos, and frequently on the front page. By comparison, the missing Indigenous women rarely had pictures displayed and stories were often tucked beside “soft news.” Articles about the white women were also four times longer on average, amounting to full biographies with intimate details about their hobbies, idiosyncrasies and life goals. Descriptions of the good qualities of the Indigenous women were superficial, limited to brief descriptions such as “shy”, “nice”, “caring” and “pretty.” Headlines often referred to white women by name, such as “Jenny We Love you” and “Waiting for Alicia.” Headlines about the Indigenous women tended to be impersonal: “Teen’s family keeping vigil,” or “RCMP identifies woman’s remains.” Gilchrist notes that the Indigenous women’s “lives were not similarly celebrated, and their deaths not equally grieved. This is a precarious space that can have dangerous implications for the safety and well-being of [Indigenous] women across Canada.”[17] As one witness testified to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,

I’ve had to continually go to the media and replay the events that happened in her story over and over and over for the last two years to get somebody to listen, to get somebody to hear that this is a bigger problem, that these issues are bigger. That this is not just another Indigenous woman, but this is a problem that is arising in Canada with our Indigenous women being – going missing and being murdered.[18]

Media representation of Indigenous women has had an impact on how they are seen when they are victims of violence. An Indigenous woman who was a candidate in the 2019 federal election put it bluntly: “We have 5,700 Indigenous women who have gone murdered or missing, and part of the reason is because of hyper-sexualization of Indigenous women.”[19] According to Yasmin Jiwani, the “fallen woman” stereotype that makes Indigenous victims seem less sympathetic to media is closely tied to stereotypes about Indigenous women in general, which are constructed and perpetuated by news.

In her essay “Symbolic and Discursive Violence in Media Representations of Indigenous Missing and Murdered Women”[20] Jiwani studied seven years’ worth of articles about Indigenous women in The Globe and Mail. She found that coverage of Indigenous women clustered around stories of violence, conflicts with band governments, custody cases, poverty and poor health status. Overall, Indigenous women were portrayed as “abject victims of poverty”[21] and “inept drug addicted mothers who did not seem to be capable of maternal feeling.”[22] She argues that these stereotypes emerge not only because of the topics that made news, but because little social or historical context is ever given to explain the causes or circumstances. Instead, there is a tendency to focus on how benevolent government agencies are trying to help. She writes “this kind of reportage seals a particularly criminalizing representation of [Indigenous] identity.”[23]

Even stories that highlight the success of Indigenous women tend to reinforce this stereotype by making the women appear exceptional only because they have escaped the trappings of their culture. In stories where women were victims of violence, women are portrayed as being culpable in their own demise, making them seem “less worthy of sympathy, empathy, and unswerving public commitment.”[24]

In a second study, “Missing and Murdered Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse,”[25] Jiwani examined news coverage of Pickton’s victims (who were not all Indigenous, but who were mostly sex trade workers). Jiwani found the coverage to be empathic, to the extent that it described the women as valuable to friends and beloved to their families. However, none of the articles about the Indigenous victims addressed the larger structural or historic issues that may have led them to drug addictions and prostitution, such as racism, residential school trauma or conditions in the women’s home communities. As a result, the women still appear to be culpable in their own death by ‘choosing’ a lifestyle that put them at risk.

One of the witnesses who testified before the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls put it this way:

I’m sure a lot of families have this in common, but what the media does in how they portray our sisters, our aunties, our daughters, it’s not in a very good light… The one that is often portrayed in the media newspapers is not one that we want to remember her by… The [photo] that has been all over in the newspapers was actually a mug shot of her, and that’s not how we want to remember her.[26]

Gilchrist says a second reason that missing Indigenous women may receive less coverage is a sense of “otherness.”[27] She notes that in cases where the victims are white, media often communicate a theme of fear and outrage that violent predators are stalking “our” streets to harm “our daughters.” This theme was absent in all coverage of the Indigenous victims she studied. Similarly, Warren Goulding suggests that reporters prefer to cover stories about people they can empathize with, and writes that in the Martin case middle-class, mostly white reporters did not empathize with Indigenous victims, especially when income, class and other factors come into play.[28] Ironically, while images of murder and serial killings are everywhere in news and entertainment media, the families of Indigenous victims still have to fight to be heard.

The 2019 report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that media coverage actually made it more difficult for them to address the issue:

We have heard from many people across Canada that they have chosen not to participate in this National Inquiry because of the way the media has portrayed their family members, their experiences, and others’ experiences. We’ve also heard from participants in this Inquiry that they’ve chosen to testify only in private because they are fearful of how the media will portray them and/or their family members.

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller[29]

Their 2019 report includes calls for media and social media influencers to improve their representation of Indigenous women and girls:

We call upon all media, news corporations and outlets, and, in particular, government-funded corporations and outlets; media unions, associations, and guilds; academic institutions teaching journalism or media courses; governments that fund such corporations, outlets, and academic institutions; and journalists, reporters, bloggers, film producers, writers, musicians, music producers, and, more generally, people working in the entertainment industry to take decolonizing approaches to their work and publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.[30]

Or, as one of the commission’s witnesses put it:

Media needs to be educated on how they report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. They need to be respectful and honourable…. When media was trying to post pictures of my sister, they were not very representative pictures, and I actually phoned a number of places that were posting pictures and I said, “We’re sending you pictures. Use these.” Even the way how they described my sister when they first announced that she was murdered, they described her as a sex-trade worker. So, I phoned them and I said, “How can you – why are you calling her that?” So, media, get your facts straight and treat us with honour and respect.

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[1] (2004) Stolen Sisters. Amnesty International. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/amr200032004enstolensisters.pdf

[2] (2009) No More Stolen Sisters. Amnesty International. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/amr200122009en.pdf

[3] (2009) Voices of our Sisters in Spirit. Native Women’s Association of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/NWAC_Voices-of-Our-Sisters-In-Spirit_2nd-Edition_March-2009.pdf

[4] (2010) What Their Stories Tell Us. Native Women’s Association of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2010-What-Their-Stories-Tell-Us-Research-Findings-SIS-Initiative.pdf

[5] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls. (2019) Reclaiming Power and Place: National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls Volume 1a. National Inquiry. Retrieved from https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1a-1.pdf

[6] Goulding, W (2001). Just another Indian: A serial killer and Canada’s indifference. Fifth House Books.

[7] Rolston, A (2010). Highway of Tears Revisited. Ryerson Review of Journalism. Retrieved from https://rrj.ca/highway-of-tears-revisited/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Boswell, R. (2009) Sisters of Spirit shines a light on missing aboriginal women. Canwest News Service. Retrieved from https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Gg90e5tvx4sJ:www.canada.com/news/part%2Bsisters%2Bspirit%2Bshines%2Blight%2Bmissing%2Baboriginal%2Bwomen/2124621/story.html+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ca

[10] Sommers, Z. (2016). Missing white woman syndrome: An empirical analysis of race and gender disparities in online news coverage of missing persons. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), 275-314.

[11] Lajoie, Y (2020) Missing White Women Syndrome – Why do people care less when women of colour go missing? Refinery29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2020/07/9883915/missing-white-woman-syndrome-madeleine-mccann

[12] Lowman, J (2000). Violence and Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada. Simon Fraser University. 6:9, 987-1011.

[13] Ibid

[14] Cameron, S (2011). On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the tragic story of Vancouver’s missing women. Knopf Canada.

[15] Native Women’s Association of Canada. (2015) Fact Sheet: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls. Retrieved from https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Fact_Sheet_Missing_and_Murdered_Aboriginal_Women_and_Girls.pdf

[16] Gilchrist, K (2010). “Newsworthy” Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered Indigenous and White Women. Feminist Media Studies. 10:4, 373-390.

[17] Ibid.

[18] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls. (2019) Reclaiming Power and Place: National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls Volume 1a. National Inquiry. Retrieved from https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1a-1.pdf

[19] Tenove, Chris, and Heidi Tworek (2020) Trolled on the Campaign Trail: Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics. Vancouver: Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia.

[20] Jiwani, Y (2009). Symbolic and Discursive Violence in Media Representations of Aboriginal Missing and Murdered Women. In D. Weir & M. Guggisberg (Eds.), Violence in Hostile Contexts E-Book. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press. 

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Jiwani, Yasmin, &Young, Mary Lynn. (2006). Missing and Murdered Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse. Canadian Journal of Communication, 31(4), 895-917.

[26] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls. (2019) Reclaiming Power and Place: National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls Volume 1a. National Inquiry. Retrieved from https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1a-1.pdf

[27] Gilchrist, K (2010). “Newsworthy” Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered Indigenous and White Women. Feminist Media Studies. 10:4, 373-390.

[28] Goulding, W. (2016). “Opinion: Looking back at Just Another Indian.” Eagle Feather News. Retrieved from https://www.eaglefeathernews.com/news/index.php?detail=2275

[29] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls. (2019) Reclaiming Power and Place: National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls Volume 1a. National Inquiry. Retrieved from https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1a-1.pdf

[30] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (2019) Reclaiming Power and Place: National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls Volume 1b. National Inquiry. Retrieved from https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1b.pdf

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