While Aboriginal people are usually “barely on the radar” at most print and online media outlets in Ontario, a Journalist’s for Human Rights report says Aboriginal stories spike during major events.
“It clearly shows that when there is a major event or the federal government is involved, that correlates directly to an increase in news stories,” said Robin Pierro, JHR’s international and domestic programs manager and lead writer of the report. “So things like the Idle No More movement and the hunger strike, these direct action initiatives, really did result in a spike in news coverage. I don’t want to encourage people to protest, but it is interesting to see that resulted in what I think Aboriginal people who were protesting wanted, which was the attention on a certain issue.”
The JHR report, Buried Voices: Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario, found that Aboriginal-related stories accounted for “just 0.28 per cent” of all news stories produced by 171 print and online news outlets across Ontario from June 1, 2010 to May 31, 2013.
“There is nothing new in the fact that media do not tend to cover very much of First Nations issues,” said Maurice Switzer, communications unit director for the Union of Ontario Indians. “What they do tend to cover is what we would call negative or stereotypical.”
Switzer said the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and the Ipperwash Inquiry both included sections on media coverage of Aboriginal issues.
“There is a famous quote in (RCAP’s) report, in which they said in the eyes of most Canadians, largely because of the media treatment or lack of it, First Nations and Aboriginal people are seen as either noble environmentalists, pitiful victims or angry warriors,” Switzer said.
Switzer said the UOI has held conferences to create more awareness of Aboriginal issues and media coverage, noting they recently awarded the ninth Debwewin Citation, for excellence in storytelling on First Nations and Aboriginal issues in Anishinabek territory, to Jody Porter, a CBC journalist based in Thunder Bay.
“The first thing we do is we cite good journalistic practices,” Switzer said. “We believe in criticizing bad reporting, but also saluting good reporting. By good, we don’t just mean things that are favourable to First Nations, we mean fair reporting.”
Switzer said the UOI is open to working with other organizations to make journalism the craft it can be.
“We’ve had several student interns who now work for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, for Global television, for CBC,” Switzer said. “That is a commitment that we made to that lack of (Aboriginal) representation.”
Rachel Pulfer, JHR’s executive director, said the JHR report included a number of “stark” findings. Released on Sept. 4, the report is available on the JHR website at www.jhr.ca.
“The really interesting piece of (the report) for us is simply the lack of coverage in print and online is stark — because the findings are so stark and the percentages are so small,” Pulfer said. “And also this interesting point that emerged where the commentary spikes during an event, and the commentary tends to trend pretty negative.”
The report found that the largest proportion of negative stories are opinion columns and editorials wherein Aboriginal people were criticized for their protests or direct action initiatives. Over the three years studied, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of stories that portrayed Aboriginal people in a negative light.
“We’re not saying that people sitting in downtown Toronto are not entitled to their opinions, but having been myself a card-carrying member of the mainstream media, there is a difference between uninformed and under-informed opinions and informed opinion weighing in on a topic,” Pulfer said. “Informed opinion is more valuable, so that’s what we’re encouraging the folks who do that kind of commentary and punditry on take on board, that rather than leaping into a panel discussion about a topic they are very far from, to make a few phone calls or look at a few studies just to have a frame of reference that is grounded in fact.”
Pulfer said Aboriginal pundits and Aboriginal voices also need to be included in the coverage of Aboriginal issues so they are part of the conversation rather than just being the focus of the conversation.
“That is something that we feel very strongly would vastly improve the balance of that kind of commentary,” Pulfer said. “It would ensure that rather than just a media episode covering a protest, there is also more articulate commentary coming from those who are frustrated, saying what they want, what they need, why they need it, why it’s valuable and why the rest of Canada needs to take these requests and claims much more seriously.”
The report included four recommendations, including the expansion of journalism school curriculum to include courses that teach effective and ethical reporting on Aboriginal issues and people.
“I think we really have to start from scratch with the journalism schools,” Pierro said. “This is an ongoing issue, historically there has always been underrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the media, so it’s not something we are going to fix overnight. But I think that by targetting the next generation of journalists in journalism schools, we’re able to encourage them to study Aboriginal history and issues so that when they are reporters they understand what they are covering in the Aboriginal community.”
The second recommendation called for working journalists to foster relationships with Aboriginal people by seeking out new sources for stories and actually visiting the communities they are reporting on.
“Some of the best articles that have been printed have been by the reporters who made the trek to visit the First Nation territories or communities and had a live glimpse of what’s happening on site,” said former deputy grand chief Mike Metatawabin, one of the commentators involved in the report. “They took the time to see first hand and actually sat down with real life people who provided real life experiences.”
The third recommendation called for journalism schools and media outlets to make an effort to create more opportunities for Aboriginal people to work in media by providing training opportunities, fellowships and jobs as reporters.
“There are a few media outlets that are mandated to have certain Aboriginal reporters, but there are so many media outlets that don’t,” Pierro said. “By having more job opportunities for Aboriginal people and reporters in the media, I think that we can also try to get the coverage to become more balanced.”
The fourth recommendation called for a broader scope of media coverage of Aboriginal people beyond crisis situation, such as stories on healthcare, education, housing and culture.
Based in Toronto, JHR began operations in 2002 to strengthen independent media in sub-Saharan Africa by building the capacity of local journalists to report ethically and effectively on human rights and good governance issues.
This past June, JHR launched its first media development program in Canada in partnership with Wawatay Native Communications Society in a number of northern Ontario communities. The program focuses on improving non-Aboriginal Canadian’s understanding of Aboriginal issues and creating job opportunities for Aboriginal people in media.
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