How journalism students are taught to tell Aboriginal stories

By Meagan Gillmore The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s mandate ended last year. Among its 94 items believed crucial for reconciliation is a call for journalists to tell Aboriginal history well—beginning with students. Of the three items directed to the media, one calls on post-secondary journalism and media programs to require all students to…

By Meagan Gillmore

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s mandate ended last year. Among its 94 items believed crucial for reconciliation is a call for journalists to tell Aboriginal history well—beginning with students.

Of the three items directed to the media, one calls on post-secondary journalism and media programs to require all students to learn about Aboriginal history in Canada, including residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous law, treaties and Aboriginal-Crown relations.

This reflects how media can encourage positive social change—and reinforce negative stereotypes.

“Media is a mirror to society,” explained Alfred Hermida, director of the University of British Columbia’s school of journalism, where Aboriginal content has been incorporated into courses for years. “Traditionally, the media has done a very poor job of reflecting these communities back to ourselves.”

Often, Aboriginal people are shown drumming or dancing or as protestors or as removed from contemporary society. While journalists need to report on social problems—substance abuse or violence, for example—they need to be aware of the negative impacts of those stories.

“It’s always about being missing or being murdered or something bad happening,” said Samantha Dawson, a member of the Selkirk First Nation in central Yukon who studied journalism at Ryerson University, in Toronto, and now studies law at UBC. “There is so much more to being an Indigenous person than the victimizing stories that we read in the media.”

Rhiannon Russell, who is not Aboriginal, encountered this when reporting on media coverage of Idle No More for the Spring 2013 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Interviewing Aboriginal journalists showed her these stories are “tired” and inaccurate. “It’s not the full picture,” she said.

But Russell wasn’t taught Aboriginal history—she doesn’t remember her classes covering the topic, she said. Russell admitted she was “pretty clued out” about Aboriginal issues when she began her Idle No More research. She didn’t know, for example, that “First Nations,” “Metis” and “Inuit” are not interchangeable terms.

She would have taken an elective on reporting about Aboriginal issues if it had been available, she said.

“As a member of the media, you do have a responsibility to inform the public,” said Russell, who now works in Toronto. “If you’re misinformed or you’re not very knowledgeable about something, then you’re going to pass that on to the reader, and they’re going to carry your biases or your lack of knowledge along with them.”

Seeing that picture can be difficult—literally. Many Aboriginal communities are small and remote; reporters may only come for protests or tragedies. Community members may be wary of always—and only—being depicted negatively.

Aboriginal communities suffer when their leaders don’t talk to the media, said Dawson, noting that there is much distrust because of institutionalized racism. “If you’ve been treated badly in the past, of course you’re going to be apprehensive.”

This makes establishing context and forming relationships with trusted sources difficult. Journalists need to be willing to do things that seem to contradict established journalism practices. In many communities, bringing elders gifts to thank them for information is appropriate, said Rachel Pulfer, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights. The organization offers workshops to teach journalists and students about Canada’s Aboriginal history and how to report on Aboriginal issues better. In a deadline-driven industry, journalists need to recognize events may not start on schedule. Interviews should not be rushed. Silence and listening are crucial.

“People want to have a more nuanced understanding of Indigenous people. They want to get away from those binaries,” said Dawson, who reported for Nunatsiaq News, in Nunavut, before entering law school. She’s experienced the constraints of deadlines and word limits of journalism and thinks reporters need to be critical of Aboriginal communities as well as showing positive depictions of communities. “But I don’t think journalists necessarily have the tools to do that. And that goes back to what is and isn’t being taught in the schools.”

Ryerson is an excellent school, said Dawson. But the lack of instruction about Aboriginal issues was a “glaring inadequacy.”

Some programs include required Canadian history courses, which may include material about Aboriginal history. Mandatory journalism courses may discuss Aboriginal issues when examining subjects like health, the environment or business.

Ryerson is making a plan to incorporate this material across courses, said Ivor Shapiro, chair of the journalism program. The school plans to offer a course specifically about reporting about Aboriginal issues in Winter 2017 on a one-time, experimental basis, he said. It will also be open to non-journalism students.

Kelly Toughill, director of the journalism program at the University of King’s College, in Halifax, said she was pleasantly surprised to learn how this content is already integrated into courses. On students’ first day, they are shown an early example of local journalism—pictures Mi’kmaq drew depicting contact with European settlers.

Toughill said the school won’t decide about possible changes until there’s a better understanding of what they’re already doing. Any possible changes won’t be made until the end of the school year. She prefers for content to be incorporated throughout several courses instead of left to one, she said.

Mark Rayner, co-ordinator of the master of media in journalism and communication program at Western University, in London, Ont., is committed to  students learning more about the topic. Earlier this year, the school hosted a Journalists for Human Rights workshop. He hopes to offer one next year and perhaps make it mandatory for journalism students. It’s not the best solution, he said, but it can happen quickly.

It’s personal for Rayner—one of his first reporting jobs was at a weekly near Ipperwash, Ont. When reporting about Aboriginal issues, he earned trust by being transparent: explaining why he wanted specific information and how he planned to use it, even allowing people to see some of the work before publication.

“I know as journalists you’re not supposed to do (that), but it felt that it was the only way,” he said. No one took him up on the offer.

At UBC, framing and agenda-setting are discussed in the integrated journalism course. When the TRC findings were released, the class analyzed the media coverage, Hermida said. The mandatory ethics course discusses how these concepts apply to Aboriginal issues. “Part of the role of being an ethical journalist is not to reduce people to stereotypes,” he said.

The program includes a unique elective, Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Developed by CBC journalist Duncan McCue, students build partnerships with First Nations on the Lower Mainland, then report on important community issues, including health care, seniors and youth. Students retain editorial independence, said Hermida, but the course’s strength is the relationships built with communities. Mainstream media have featured the students’ work.

Improving Aboriginal coverage has challenges. “Part of the job of being a journalist is shining the light in dark places and shining light in places that people perhaps don’t initially want to go,” said Pulfer. It’s “going to be an interesting ride.”

“I’m actually thrilled that the journalism schools are actually going to follow through on this call to action. It makes me feel happy and it makes me feel like the future is going to brighter in the media industry for the way that Indigenous people are portrayed,” said Dawson.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Samantha Dawson said the last quote. We apologize for the error.

[[{“fid”:”5526″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:583,”width”:435,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 134px; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Meagan Gillmore is a writer and editor in Toronto. A graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University’s journalism program in Brantford, Ont., she has worked as a reporter at The Yukon News, in Whitehorse, and a copyeditor for Brunswick News Inc. in Saint John. 

Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto. She worked at the Yukon News in Whitehorse from July 2012 to August 2013. You can follow her on twitter @meagangillmore.