How reciprocity, solutions and rethinking objectivity can help decolonize journalism
In a first-of-its-kind textbook for journalism students, Duncan McCue sets out to demonstrate how integral reciprocity is raising the standards of coverage of Indigenous communities.
McCue, Anishinaabe journalist and a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, published Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities (2023), the successor to his online resource, Reporting on Indigenous Communities, launched in 2011.
In the intervening years, we’ve seen some efforts to meet the media and journalism education recommendations outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ 2015 report, style guidelines designed to assist reporters with the mechanics of writing news stories about Indigenous communities and new programming designed to increase access to media opportunities for emerging Indigenous journalists.
We’ve also seen swings and misses to meet various moments of significant importance, from the rise of the Idle No More movement—which was met with overly-negative framing by some news organizations in particular— to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the coverage of which became drowned-out by editorials disputing the use of the word “genocide” in the final report.
The book is a guide specifically for journalism students but is also fit for reporters, and educators who engage — or have yet to engage — in reporting in Indigenous communities. It follows McCue’s own extensive work on raising awareness on how to respectfully engage with Indigenous sources and stories.
The book is split into four parts – At the Desk, In the Field, On the Air, and Teachings. The first three lead readers through the journalistic process from conceiving and pitching a story, to engaging with Indigenous sources and reporting in their communities, to bringing a story to life with fairness and respect for Indigenous voices, which involves increased understanding of how colonialism continues to shape the realities of Indigenous communities. Each of these parts contain relevant contextual information, historical data, practical advice and suggested in-class exercises and discussion prompts. The last part includes interviews with practicing Indigenous journalists who are reshaping journalism across Canada.
Most recently known for his work as the host of CBC’s Helluva Story on CBC Radio One and for Kuper Island, a limited series podcast on residential schools on CBC Podcasts, McCue is joining Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in July as an associate professor, where he will develop a certificate in Indigenous journalism.
You can read my interview with McCue below or listen to it.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Gabriela Perdomo: Your book Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities follows an intense time in journalism in Canada — what a few years ago started frequently being referred to as a reckoning. How does your book contribute to this moment?
Duncan McCue: It is a reckoning. It’s not new. We, Indigenous journalists, have been talking about this need for the media business to change for a long time. We have been having this conversation internally in our own newsrooms for well over a decade and longer. Before I arrived at the CBC, there were Indigenous journalists who were saying that you need to do a better job of including more Indigenous voices in your newscasts and in your newspapers. You need to do a better job of recognizing what’s newsworthy. It’s not a new conversation at all.
That said, we are at a moment where the media seems to have recognized, because of the awful tragic news of George Floyd in the United States, that it has done a poor job — and in some cases a terrible job — when it comes to racialized communities. And that there is an obligation in this country, in Canada, to include Indigenous voices in a substantive way in our newscasts that goes beyond tragedy and protests.
It’s an important time because for whatever reason the people who make decisions about media in this country have finally started to get the message that it is an important time. And that has been burbling up from journalism students, it has been burbling up from Indigenous communities and other racialized communities for a number of years, but finally the decision-makers who run our newsrooms are recognising that it is a moment of reckoning. And some of them, not all of them, but some of them, are actually starting to make changes so that’s a good thing.
Gabriela: Your book starts with a timeline of important historical dates for Indigenous relations in Canada. And what struck me about the list is how recent so many of those events are. Do you think journalists across Canada truly have a sense of how fresh some of that very painful history still is?
Duncan: No. There are unfortunately a lot of journalists who have very little knowledge about Indigenous people or Indigenous history. This is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said journalists cannot be at arms-length from reconciliation. They need to be part of reconciliation. And that’s why journalism schools, with Call to Action number 86 of the TRC, have to start teaching Indigenous history and Indigenous culture in addition to politics for this very reason.
And I don’t blame my colleagues for not knowing the history that is in that timeline. If they’re looking at that and saying, ‘I don’t recognize many of these events. I don’t know anything about them. I don’t know the contributions of Indigenous soldiers in the First World War, the Second World War. I don’t know who Pontiac was. I don’t know what a papal bull is.’ If they don’t know those things, I don’t blame them. I blame the education system which has, intentionally, tried to keep Indigenous people and our histories more or less invisible.
But it is recent history, and it is crucial: They need to understand that history because without it then you’re caught relying on the unconscious biases and the stereotypes about Indigenous peoples which are in your brain. That Indigenous people are only on that side of the town and that that side of the town isn’t safe. You know, that Indigenous people wear feathers and buckskin. All those kinds of things are part of our unconscious bias and it starts to perpetuate itself in our news coverage, in our news stories, even though we didn’t even know that that was happening.
Gabriela: You say it is important to understand why sometimes people are still enraged about this very recent and very present history of hurt. Why is that?
Duncan: Yeah I think that there’s a lot of things happening there but what I was talking about was the 500 years of rage. Being an Indigenous person in this country is not always easy. We have experienced the apocalypse, in many different ways. In terms of pandemic and mass deaths. We know that. Our people have experienced that. We’ve experienced language loss, and children being taken away, and land being taken away, and there is still a great deal of historical trauma in every Indigenous person that you meet. The sadness and the loss that we have experienced, some might say, lives in our bodies.
So that is going on. It’s also important to understand, with regard to the long view of Indigenous history, that many of these unhappy things that have happened with regard to our people have been carried out by authority figures. Whether it is priests, or whether it is police officers or whether it is government officials, they have come into Indigenous communities and said, ‘This is the way it must be. What you are doing is savage and you cannot continue to do it.’ Journalists may think that they’re just going to do a story about a house fire, or untreatable drinking water, or a child welfare agreement or a new opening of a school. But you will encounter people who will perceive you as being an authority figure. You represent capital M mainstream media and they are angry. They are angry at us. There is a trust gap and you represent that person that they now have an opportunity to vent at. And just because you’re asking a fairly simple question, ‘How does it feel?’ They may get upset.
This isn’t going to happen often, but it does happen. What I say in the textbook is that you need to be really understanding of this history of outsiders coming into communities and that you represent that outsider. And rather than getting your back up, in the way that many journalists do, and say ‘You’re not going to stop me from being a representative of freedom of the press. I have a right to tell this story. Get out of my way, I represent truth’— which is the way that many journalists have been taught to respond when people say no, right? We double down and say ‘No, I’m going to get this story.’ That’s considered to be good journalism. Well, I’m saying that in some cases that’s not necessarily the case. That, when someone gets angry at you like that because of colonial history, that is the time to not react with anger but to be humble and to act with respect. To say, ‘I hear you. I understand why you feel this way. How can I change? How can I be different? How can I help? How can I give back?’ Those are all questions that you should be asking, not ‘How am I going to get my story and get out on my way?’
Gabriela: I don’t want to talk about your book without bringing up your sense of humour, because you are quite intentional about warning us that your book ‘errs on the side of funny.’ And this is something I heard also in your podcast, Kuper Island, when you say ‘Breaking news, Indians are funny.’ Why is it important for you that both audiences and journalists know that?
Duncan: Oh, I love that, because I am very obvious about it in the textbook but I love that you also noted it in the podcast as well. I am putting it into practice in the podcast. It’s just that there is an awful lot of sadness in Indigenous lives, but I have never been to a gathering of Indigenous people where we’re not laughing, and we’re not enjoying. Laughter is just so much a part of our survival and our joy and, unfortunately, because of the nature of news, funny isn’t always headline news, you know? Sadness is often the headline. That’s why so many people say, ‘Turn off the newscast, I can’t deal with all this death and destruction.’
The challenge when it comes to covering a particular group of people, Indigenous people, is that when there’s just this steady stream of bad news and sad news then you get this image of Indigenous people as being stoic and sad, when there is nothing further from the truth. So it was important to include that in the podcast. Yes, I was speaking with survivors who are dealing with multi-generational PTSD, but they laugh. They laugh about their grandchildren preferring spaghetti and hamburgers rather than traditional seafood. They laugh about their cats and making sure that they have provided for their pets when they do death rituals, you know? All of these things. We laugh. And it’s important to get beyond that stoic image of the Indian in the news.
Gabriela: In that same vein, you dedicate a full chapter of your book to solutions-oriented stories, to encouraging instructors and journalism students to start looking for those solutions-oriented stories when they are reporting in Indigenous communities. Why did you want that to be included?
Duncan: I understand why journalists rush off to cover problem stories. And we do that not just in Indigenous news but everything. I mean, there is tension when there are problems and in tension you get many of the elements of stories that make people pay attention. And it’s the raw emotional material that we need to get people to pay attention to our news stories. That’s never going to change, journalists going into Indigenous communities when there are problems. But what I’m suggesting is that there are solutions.
I think many Canadians, when they think about residential schools, or drinking water, or child welfare or suicide, they just think that these are intractable problems that have never changed and have no solution. It’s a bit like the Middle East. The problems seem so large and so complex that people just say ‘Argh,’ and they don’t do anything. When in fact there are communities right across this country which have found their own solutions to drinking water, which have found their own solutions to suicide crises, which have found their own solutions to child welfare.
And so rather than just putting out these problems and having Canadians go, ‘Argh, there it is again,’ we can help advance the public conversation and the public interest by reporting on these solutions and not just saying, ‘It’s the government that’s going to fix it all.’ When you can start to share information with other communities about some community on the other side of the country which found its solution to its suicide issue, then you can go, ‘Oh!’ That’s journalism for the public good.
Gabriela: One thing I particularly enjoyed about your book is that you provided exercises and discussion prompts that instructors can use with their journalism students. You make it really easy for someone to imagine how you are going to teach a subject like this. But it made me wonder, do you think that non-Indigenous instructors are still hesitant to teach journalism students about reporting in Indigenous communities?
Duncan: I know they’re hesitant because I’ve had conversations with them about whether they should be teaching it or not. And my answer is the same as the answer that I give journalism students who come to me and ask, ‘Should I be doing this story about Indigenous issues?’ The answer is this: Yes. And get over it. You need to be part of this conversation and these solutions. It can’t just be Indigenous partners who are doing all the work when it comes to starting to rectify this broken relationship. It needs to be the other partners as well.
Non-Indigenous professors, I totally understand that they may be nervous about teaching this material and saying, ‘I’m not qualified to do this, I don’t know this material.’ Sure, and I’m not saying that you’re an expert on Indigenous issues. So reach out and find someone to include as guest lecturers in your classroom. Start building partnerships with Indigenous colleagues if they exist. If they don’t exist then ask your employer why and find honorariums to bring people in. These are all solutions to having a lack of knowledge. Professors, secondary teachers, elementary teachers often take on subjects that they may not be experts in. We are experts in teaching, that is our expertise. The subject matter is almost immaterial sometimes.
Gabriela: I’d like you to talk about the concept of reciprocity, which you bring up as an important element in establishing trust when reporting in Indigenous communities. What does it mean to be reciprocal?
Duncan: There are many differences between Indigenous peoples, but reciprocity is one value which I think is common to every Indigenous group that I’ve ever spent time with. The notion of giving back is deeply embedded in our worldview and in our cultural practices. The example that I give is a medicine teacher who puts down tobacco when they harvest some plants, or a hunter who gives a gift or tobacco to the animal he has just killed. Those are ways of recognizing that you have an obligation to something that you have extracted. And a duty. And I am urging journalists to think about their journalism that way.
In the same way that anybody who’s ever been in the middle of a clear-cut looks around — and I include loggers in that — anybody that’s been in the middle of a clear-cut looks around and sees how devastating that has been to the earth, journalists go out into our communities and we extract stories in a way that’s often harmful to our communities. We have not done a very good job of understanding our responsibility to give back. Giving back is important when it comes to the relationship we have with our sources and also the relationship that we build with communities in terms of understanding and listening to the stories that are important to them and making sure that they’re represented in our newsrooms.
Gabriela: Do you think that this concept of reciprocity sometimes clashes with normative demands of journalism? For example the teaching of being objective and distant from both our subjects and our stories?
Duncan: Of course it does. And that’s part of the reason why journalists, old school journalists, get their backs up when we start talking about this kind of thing. When you talk about an honorarium for an elder, well that goes against the fundamental principle of journalism standards and practices about paying sources. But herein lies the challenge. It is that we need to start understanding that we can adapt our journalism practices in ways that do not fundamentally challenge our role as fact-finders, as truth-tellers. That there are ways that you can do both, that we can bridge those relationships. It is possible to adapt our practice.
I use trauma survivors as an example of that. We need to understand that perhaps being fully transparent at the outset of an interview, sharing quotes, giving survivors more control over their own story, that may not be harming our objectivity but may actually be improving it, it may actually be building stronger relationships that help us tell better stories.
Gabriela: Finally, a big part of your book is made up of conversations with nine other Indigenous journalists and the breadth of those conversations is remarkable. What kind of impact do you think Indigenous journalists are having on the practice of journalism from coast to coast to coast right now?
Duncan: Huge. It is huge. And one of the reasons why I wanted to include other journalists is because each of them are remarkable in their own efforts, in their own ways to do this work of what I call decolonizing journalism. We are, in often unheralded ways, changing the narrative in our newsrooms about the way that we go about the business of journalism. So when I talk with someone like Connie Walker, who has done so much good work when it comes to trauma-informed reporting, and when I talk with Waubgeshig Rice about this notion of bringing humility into his business as a video journalist, those are things which are having profound impacts on newsrooms right across this country.
Indigenous journalists have been lobbying for a change. And they do so because they now understand that those things are important teachings to them as Indigenous people, but that they can’t practice journalism in that way that they have been trained to do without running into conflict with who they are. So there were two things that were going to happen: there was just never going to be a place for Indigenous people in the mainstream media, and that’s what we saw throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, or Indigenous people just said, ‘Yeah, I’m not interested in being part of this machine,’ and they went and expressed their talents and visions elsewhere. But through the ‘90s, and early aughts and now we’re starting to see newsrooms listening and saying that if we’re going to keep some of our Indigenous colleagues around, we need to start listening to the lessons that they’re sharing with us and changing our practices.
Gabriela Perdomo is editor-in-chief of J-Source and assistant professor of journalism and digital media at Mount Royal University.