Media Portrayals of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

It is called the “Highway of Tears”: an 800 kilometer stretch of highway in British Columbia where more than a dozen young women have disappeared since 1994. The same thing had happened before in the same place – almost twenty young women disappeared or were killed there between the late Sixties and the early Eighties – but until recently these crimes have received little media attention, perhaps because the majority of victims have been Aboriginal women.

That Aboriginal women are likely to be victims of violence is not news: Aboriginal women aged 25 to 44 are five times more likely to suffer a violent death than other women in Canada. Amnesty International (Stolen Sisters, 2004 and No More Stolen Sisters, 2009) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (Voices of our Sisters In Spirit, 2009 and What Their Stories Tell Us, 2010) have documented more than 500 cases of Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered since the 1960s. Half of the cases have never been solved.

Families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women have long argued that media pays less attention when missing and murdered women are Aboriginal than when they are White. Media responses have ranged from incorporating the criticisms into their coverage to a denial that the problem exists: when serial killer John Martin, who preyed on Aboriginal 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, journalist Warren Goulding argues that had the victims been White, the story would have drawn national media attention akin to the Paul Bernardo-Karla Homolka case. 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 (Ryerson Review of Journalism, 2010), journalist Adriana Rolston says that critics pointing to a media bias against Aboriginal 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.” 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 Aboriginal when, in fact, eight were White. Kate Rexe, who worked on the NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit campaign at the time, noted that only after tragedy struck a White woman did the media began focusing attention on the lost Aboriginal women, but in terms of the amount of coverage she says the media gave the Aboriginal women “footnote status”.

Some question if Aboriginal identity is the sole cause of the bias, or if other factors are at play. Studies in the United States have shown that darker-skinned women receive less coverage than White women, but so do women who are at higher risk for violence such as sex trade workers, women living in poverty and those with drug addictions. Scholars call this bias, which divides victims into stereotypes of pure women who are newsworthy victims and fallen women who are not, “missing White woman syndrome.” John Lowman’s study “Violence and the outlaw status of (street) Prostitution in Canada” examined the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of sex trade workers from 1964 to 1999. He showed that up to 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.” 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, 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. However, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s research, most of the 500 missing Aboriginal women in their database are not sex trade workers.

Kristen Gilchrist’s study “’Newsworthy’ Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered Aboriginal and White Women” demonstrates that even when the missing Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal women were superficial, limited to brief descriptions such as “shy”, “nice”, “caring,” and “pretty.” Headlines often referred to White women by name: “Jenny We Love you” and “Waiting for Alicia.” Headlines about the Aboriginal women tended to be impersonal: “Teen’s family keeping vigil,” or “RCMP identifies woman’s remains.” Gilchrist notes that the Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal women across Canada.”

According to Yasmin Jiwani, the “fallen woman” stereotype that makes Aboriginal victims seem less sympathetic to media is closely tied to stereotypes about Aboriginal women in general, which are constructed and perpetuated by news. In her essay ”Symbolic and Discursive Violence in Media Representations of Aboriginal Missing and Murdered Women” Jiwani studied seven years’ worth of articles about Aboriginal women in the Globe and Mail. She found that coverage of Aboriginal women clustered around stories of violence, conflicts with band governments, custody cases, poverty and poor health status. Overall, Aboriginal women were portrayed as “abject victims of poverty” and “inept drug addicted mothers who did not seem to be capable of maternal feeling.” 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 Aboriginal identity.” Even stories that highlight the success of Aboriginal 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.” In a second study, “Missing and Murdered Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse,” Jiwani examined news coverage of Pickton’s victims (who were not all Aboriginal, 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 Aboriginal 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.

Gilchrist says a second reason that missing Aboriginal women may receive less coverage is a sense of “otherness”. 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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal victims, especially when income, class and other factors come into play. Ironically, while images of murder and serial killings are everywhere in news and entertainment media, the families of Aboriginal victims still have to fight to be heard.

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