A new Journalists for Human Rights study shows that stories about aboriginal issues made up less than one per cent of media coverage for three years running – despite events such as the Attawapiskat housing crisis and the Idle No More movement.

A new Journalists for Human Rights study shows that aboriginal issues are barely on the radar of most Ontario media outlets.

JHR initiated the study to establish a benchmark for its northern Ontario initiative that seeks to increase the participation of aboriginal Canadians in local and national media. It found that stories about aboriginal issues made up less than one per cent of media coverage for three years running.

“We realized there was no qualitative and quantitative study that looked at the extent of media coverage in Ontario over the last three years,” said JHR’s executive director Rachel Pulfer. “It was important that we have a baseline to see if the work we’re doing is actually making a difference, and it will help inform our strategies going forward.”


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The study looked at print and online coverage of aboriginal issues from June 2010 to May 2013. While coverage did increase over the three years, it still remains at only 0.46 per cent of all stories in Ontario, or an average of 9.8 stories daily from June 2012 to May 2013.

“Simply put, if aboriginal peoples represent approximately two per cent of the population of Ontario, it is shameful that aboriginal issues still only occupy less than 0.5 per cent of online and print media in Ontario,” wrote Duncan McCue, a CBC reporter and a professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia, in the report. He was one of the many experts individuals who looked at the quantitative results of the study and provided analysis.    

But McCue said, “it's not a surprise.”

“What should concern every news editor in Canada is what this study really shows: today’s Ontario media outlets have failed to increase aboriginal content, despite knowing full well that aboriginal under-representation in the media is a longstanding problem,” he said.

In 2010-2011, 28 per cent of the news stories about aboriginal issues were negative. That proportion increased in the following two years to 33 per cent and 39 per cent. More than half of the stories in 2012-2013 focused on the Idle No More movement and the Attawapiskat protests and hunger strikes.

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The study noted that as coverage related to the protests and talks between aboriginal people and the government became more frequent, the proportion of stories with a negative tone also increased.

Jorge Barrera, who won J-Source’s Newsperson of the Year award in 2012, noted in the study that given the low level of aboriginal coverage pre- and post-Idle No More, the odds were high that the public might not have been aware of rising tensions.

“To many, the sudden flash mob round dances and a chief hunger striking in a teepee on an island in the Ottawa River would seem to have materialized out of the blue,” Barrera wrote in the report. “Without any reference points, or noticeable narrative arcs, the emergence of the Idle No More movement and protests led to predictable public reactions, which were highlighted in the tone of the media coverage, with most of it tilting to negative tones as the protest and hunger strikes continued.”

The report made several recommendations, including establishing more opportunities for aboriginal journalists to work with mainstream media outlets and expanding journalism school curriculum to teach effective and ethical reporting about aboriginal issues and people.  

JHR also recommends that media coverage of aboriginal people and issues should be broadened beyond crisis coverage.

“And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Pulfer told J-Source.

JHR has stationed three journalism trainers in northern Ontario communities and has a field coordinator in Thunder Bay in hope of improving relations between mainstream media outlets and aboriginal journalists.

*All images courtesy of JHR

Buried Voices_Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.