A journalist’s guide to reporting on indigenous cultures
Duncan McCue, a UBC journalism professor and reporter for CBC’s The National has launched a website to help journalists report about Aboriginal communities. Belinda Alzner spoke with McCue about why he created the website, some challenges journalists face, and how the resource can help journalists and editors work together to overcome them. And with Attawapiskat making headlines, the guide is as timely as it is useful.
Stories of victims, stories of warriors, stories of drunks, of poor living conditions, of blockades, of protests: all too often, these are the images of Aboriginal people in the Canadian media, according to Duncan McCue. One needs to look no further than the coverage of Attawapiskat at the moment for an example.
But the CBC reporter and adjunct professor at UBC’s graduate school of journalism wants to change that. He has launched an online resource for journalists — Reporting in Indigenous Cultures (RIIC) — that aims to help journalists improve their reporting and coverage of Aboriginal communities.
McCue first pitched the idea when he was applying for a Knight Fellowship through Stanford University. The idea was to create a toolkit to help reporters who cover First Nations.
The website is home to comprehensive guides for reporters — including how to research and pitch stories (found in the “At the Desk” section), how to gather information for stories (“In the Field”) and how to present stories about indigenous people (“On the Air”). As well, there is a Teachings section where McCue hopes journalists will share experiences and material to create a constantly-evolving collaborative learning environment.
The launch of RIIC coincidentally comes at a time when a northern-Ontario Aboriginal community is garnering national media attention. Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency due to a severe shortage of housing and clean water. But it wasn’t until weeks later, after Chief Theresa Spence said their cries for help had fallen on deaf ears, and MP Charlie Angus called everyone out on it, that the mainstream media picked up on the story. McCue said he’s unsure if any reporters have used his guide to aid their coverage.
But he posed the question to the RIIC’s Twitter following: “How do YOU think the media is doing in coverage of #Attawapiskat?”
One response said the coverage was the equivalent to “media porn” and that First Nations’ housing crises are nothing new, adding that Attawapiskat is not the only community to have declared a state of emergency.
McCue knows that “It’s challenging for any reporter to cover native communities.” The award-winning journalist is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation in southern Ontario, and has been reporting for CBC for over 12 years. “It’s challenging for native reporters and it’s even more challenging for some non-native reporters.”
He has picked up a Jack Webster award and three RTNDA awards — one for Best Long Feature and two regional awards for his work on aboriginal issues.
McCue gathered the information found on RIIC from his research and first-hand experience. “I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were academic resources – not so much in Canada, but in the U.S. and Australia,” he said. “I tried to recall the experiences from wherever I could get it and synthesize it into the guide.”
UBC has launched a new course that focuses on reporting on indigenous cultures. RIIC will serve as a “textbook of sorts” for them, he says. But the resource is meant for working journalists.
“I know that folks in the newsrooms have questions and troubles that they’re facing and don’t have a lot of time or opportunity to get training,” said McCue. The website’s resources will help journalists make sure they’re as prepared as possible and to ask the right questions when in the field.
McCue told J-Source that though some aboriginal community chiefs prefer speaking to the mainstream media due to the easier questions they tend to ask, overall, the reception to better-informed journalists should be positive. “There are going to be a lot more chiefs who appreciate when a reporter comes to them and understands the background about the community,” McCue says, adding that they will appreciate reporters who don’t “just show up when there’s a tragedy or a blockade.”
But when those things do happen reporters need to avoid falling victim to using media stereotypes about Aboriginal people. As McCue says in the guide, journalists should to find out what is being done by leaders and the community to solve the problems they face, rather than just reporting on the problem itself.
One issue some journalists struggle with is what McCue calls the clash between “Indian time versus newsroom deadlines.”
While journalists are often rushing on deadline, “many Aboriginal people have a different concept or appreciation or understanding of time,” McCue explains. It can be frustrating for journalists to have an interviewee show up late or trying to report on an event that didn’t start on time. McCue sees it as “a different cultural appreciation of what’s important.”
He argues that the solution is for journalists to be flexible and adaptable. “It means having a Plan B, and a Plan C, and a Plan D if someone doesn’t show up for an interview because it was a good day to go hunting,” McCue says. Also, arriving a few hours early can help you develop an understanding of the community as well as act as a buffer if things don’t run on time.
“There are lots of reporters that will throw up their hands and say, ‘Well that’s all good advice but I’ve got to have something on the air tonight,’” McCue says. Which is true, and a fair argument. That’s why he says editors also have to understand what’s going on. “Just keep your reporter on it for another day … don’t pull the plug so fast,” he says. If editors did this, McCue says he’d wager that we’d see stronger Aboriginal reporting.
When he showed the site to Peter Mansbridge, McCue says the CBC News chief correspondent and anchor of The National agreed there wasn’t much awareness or discussion about these issues in newsrooms. “With very few exceptions, Canadian journalists have little idea how to best pursue stories in the aboriginal community,” he wrote on the site. In a glowing endorsement, Mansbridge added, “This will make us all better, but more importantly, it will make our stories much better.”
Everything on RIIC is licensed under Creative Commons, with the intention that content be shared freely. McCue is hoping that journalists will share what’s on the site, weigh in to debate the issues and contribute their own experiences. “It’s not just a static thing that reporters dip in to,” he says. “They’ll be able to take a look at Facebook and social media sites and see how people are talking about the reporting that’s going on in indigenous communities.”
All of the different aspects of the site are working together toward one goal, though: “This is a guide designed for better journalism about Aboriginal communities,” McCue says. “That means good and bad – and everything in between.”