Back to class: Reporting in Indigenous Communities

Journalism students at the University of British Columbia are getting a valuable education in the complexities of reporting on Indigenous issues.

The Reporting in Indigenous Communities (RIIC) course in the school’s Graduate School of Journalism was created by veteran CBC reporter and anchor Duncan McCue during a one-year fellowship at Stanford.

Students have since produced six years of reporting on Indigenous issues spanning everything from youth issues to water to elders, health, sexuality, and land rights. Their work has won numerous awards and been published and broadcast every year since inception by the national broadcaster.

The program was born from a recognition that a knowledge gap existed for journalists – both working and training – when it came to reporting on Indigenous issues. The main culprit, says McCue, is a lack of understanding of the complex history of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“I think unfortunately that the image of the feathered Indian, the buckskin Indian, the warrior Indian have all become normalized, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike,” he says.

CBC host and RIIC founder Duncan McCue

These are manifest in the ubiquitous Indigenous representations on things like sports jerseys and “packaging to sell everything from cigarettes to cars … in cartoons and in the literature we read,” he says. “Until you start to read some history, you won’t understand how these images have been constructed by non-Indigenous people and don’t necessarily represent reality .”

McCue, an Anishinaabe and member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario, is quick to acknowledge – and remind veteran reporters – that media has played a key role in perpetuating these stereotypes.

“Journalists are often surprised when I suggest to them that we – the collective ‘we’ of the mainstream media – haven’t done the best job of capturing Indigenous reality in this country. We’re perpetuating those tropes and stereotypes both visually, through the narrative lens, and through the types of stories that we choose. And so what we see in the news is an awful lot of focus of Indigenous people as being victims, or as being warriors. Those are aspects of Indigenous life in this country but they’re not the full picture and unfortunately … they a very skewed picture of Indigenous life.”

The course also aims to disabuse journalists of the “us versus them” narrative, and the accompanying hyperbolic reporting on conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“There is certainly lots of conflict, there’s no doubt that’s a part of Canada’s history, but there’s also another narrative there that Indigenous people work together with their neighbors, have worked together with their neighbors since settlers first arrived, and that narrative needs to be shared as well,” McCue says. “Because those stories are perhaps more common than stories of conflict. If we’re going to really work toward reconciliation … the news media have to take off those blinders that we often have when looking for news where there’s conflict happening, and start to realize that there are other stories that are important to tell.”

McCue’s key recommendations for reporting on Indigenous issues are to recognize the importance of that history, to be transparent, and to treat people with respect.

“Given the long history of theft and mistreatment, journalists must understand that they may be perceived as just one more visitor on that continuum,” he says. “So with that in mind, we need to be as transparent as possible with Indigenous subjects about what we’re trying to accomplish, so that they can make their own decision about whether or not to participate in the story and what to share.”

He acknowledges that of course respect is a prerequisite for dealing with any source – but the reality of pressroom deadlines and the constraints of the medium can sometimes skew journalists to view our subjects through our own needs and the lens of that medium. Trying to fit the needed historical context and perspective into two minute broadcast stories or a few column inches can be particularly problematic with Indigenous issues.

“When I say we need to treat Indigenous people with respect, it means understanding that you’re working in a different culture, and trying to respect some of the cultural protocols in the communities you’re working in, rather than the needs that we have from the newsroom culture,” he says.

Practical challenges of reporting Indigenous stories

One cultural protocol that can sometimes challenge the deadline-driven imperative of reporting can be a different sense of the importance of time.

Haley Lewis, who completed the course in this year’s cohort, offers a personal account of the challenges of reporting Indigenous stories.

Lewis’ biggest surprise and challenge of the course was the difficulty gaining timely access to sources – despite possessing what she thought could be added advantages of having Indigenous heritage and some second-degree contacts herself.

She sent introductory calls and emails regarding her team’s story about a contentious land dispute between a local First Nation and its neighbours in November but they remained unanswered until late January, causing some mild panic as April publishing deadlines loomed.

“Going into it, I wanted to create more positive stories for Indigenous people and I thought most Indigenous people wanted the same thing, so it was a bit shocking having all those barriers put up when we first went into our communities,” Lewis said.  But, she says, great support from McCue and co-teachers Kathryn Gretsinger and Chantelle Bellerichard kept them going – and she ultimately got her story.

Haley Lewis

Lewis describes a rich curriculum that reflected not only the experience of the core professors but also drew on perspectives from Indigenous guest speakers from the U.S., Australia, and Scandinavia.

She found some of the most impactful take-aways of the course were the veterans’ stories of mistakes they’d made and seen – for example, filming ceremonies without permission or not observing particular cultural protocols.

One such protocol that surprised some of her classmates was the advice to offer a small “gift” to elders upon securing an interview. While typically considered ethically taboo in journalism, the practice is positioned as culturally appropriate – and encouraged.

Beyond the story

The road can be unpredictable for the uninitiated, and Lewis can attest to the hard work required (she and her partner made at least 15 trips to the Indigenous community an hour south of Vancouver to report their story). But the personal rewards of overcoming these barriers to establish, build, and maintain these relationships can be extraordinary.

“There’s just such an importance in building those personal relationships if you want to get a good story out of it,” she says. “So it’s spending a lot of time just getting to know people. We went to the elders lunch and spent time just getting to know community members. And those relationships afterwards.”

She and her partner have since been invited to community’s first fish ceremony on the new land, as well as to a traditional ceremony on National Aboriginal Day.

McCue considers these experiences among the most important of the ones his students accrue.

“What moves me as a professor is the experiences students have that are unrelated to their story. Every year, students come back and tell me about being invited into a sweat lodge, or going into a spirit dance ceremony, going for a drive with a Chief for four hours into the mountains, or getting invited to go to a feast or a traditional wedding… There are many experiences that they have where they learn so much about how to operate in Indigenous communities, about Indigenous culture, and just get to know people. These may not form the basis for their story but they become incredible learning experiences for them that they’ll never forget. When I hear those kinds of stories, that’s when I know they’ve gone through a profound learning experience that’s going to really help them approach these kinds of stories once they get into the daily grind of the news room.”

Media practitioners who work with underreported communities can learn many lessons from the RIIC course. Chief among them are the need to understand the lived history and cultural protocols of your subject, take the time and care to build nuanced context into your stories, and avoid the tropes that may plague past reporting on the community. These ideals can form the basis for respectful, accurate, and ultimately, better journalism – whatever the subject.

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