Bridging the Gap

Aboriginals and the media in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan has seventy-four First Nations, ten daily news outlets, and one major problem.

Along with provinces across the country, Saskatchewan’s mainstream media has failed to accurately incorporate aboriginal affairs into its news coverage.

“Canada is a colonial country and it’s still alive and well. And as we found, it’s certainly alive and well in the press,” said Carmen Robertson, co author of Seeing Red, a book that explores how aboriginals have been portrayed in the Canadian media since 1869.

Aboriginal people are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population, and research done for the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy suggests that by 2050 at least half the province’s population could be aboriginal. Despite the rapid growth, issues pertaining to aboriginal people are still under represented in mainstream news. Aboriginal journalists make up just a small portion of the media and the relationship between First Nations leaders and the media is tainted with fear and mistrust. This leads to a lack of coverage of aboriginal issues—a failing that has been apparent throughout the history of the province.

In an industry that revolves around current trends and ‘the now’, it only makes sense that the media incorporate more aboriginal content in their coverage. Over the last decade, journalism has come under pressure to address the issue. Newsrooms have made strides in the right direction, but the gap between aboriginal people and the media still exists and begs to be bridged.

One of these things is not like the others

When Nelson Bird took his first job at CTV Regina in 1998, he was immediately singled out.

“There were very, very few reporters of Aboriginal descent. It was difficult for me, because I was labeled. It was tokenism—the only reason I was hired was because I was First Nations,” said Bird. At the time, he was one of the only First Nations reporters at CTV in Canada.

“I was always viewed from the beginning as the ‘aboriginal reporter’: ‘This is Nelson Bird, our aboriginal reporter.’ When we would have tours and people would meet reporters, I was the only one who would have a title.”

The title was not something he asked for, but rather automatically acquired.

Mervin Brass can identify with Bird’s struggle to pursue a career in the media without being defined by his First Nations background. Throughout his ten-year career in the Saskatchewan media, Brass encountered segregation from the pool of ‘mainstream’ journalists.

“When I was doing a CBC story on the Saskatoon police, one of the head bosses in Toronto came up to me and said, ‘We are running the story tonight and we want to know how to introduce you. Should we call you a First Nations reporter from Saskatchewan?’ And I said, ‘Only if you start calling Ian Hanomansing the East Indian reporter from Vancouver.’ ”

With intentions of incorporating more First Nations perspectives into news coverage in Saskatchewan, this approach has accomplished the opposite. Identifying aboriginal reporters by their cultural identity perpetuates the notion of marginalization that is so commonly attached to First Nations and Métis people.

Both Bird and Brass argue their cultural background should not identify their professional positions—and nor should it for anyone else.

“I’m a reporter who happens to be aboriginal,” said Bird. “I don’t deny the fact that I’m aboriginal, but why should I have a label when nobody else does? It just defeats the purpose that I can be professional without my culture having to define who I am.”

“I never really shied away from the First Nations stories because that was my strength. I had all the contacts. I had all the sources. But at the same time I also proved to my producers and editors that I could do mainstream stories just as well, if not better, than the other reporters in the business,” said Brass.

“You’re a journalist. You’re supposed to cover everything. You should know a little bit about everything, not just one specialized beat.”

Carol Morin, a veteran journalist with 32 years experience in the Canadian media agrees. She suggests it’s beneficial for aboriginal journalists to produce stories about their own communities, but the coverage should not lie solely in their hands.

“The fact is, I think a lot of times, aboriginal people make better in-roads to the aboriginal population just because we understand each other. But I think it’s important that other reporters who are not aboriginal make those in-roads too. Because we have to build bridges, and change the relationship and the dynamic between everybody,” said Morin.

“This whole ‘us and them’ thing has got to stop.”

And having more aboriginal journalists isn’t the only answer—non-Native journalists who are knowledgeable on First Nations and Métis issues are essential players as well.

Informed informers

The limited and often misinformed coverage of aboriginal issues in the province can arguably be blamed on a lack of education and understanding about the culture. Shannon Avison has been teaching Indian Communications Arts (INCA) classes at First Nations University of Canada for two decades and recognizes the benefit of a knowledgeable media.

“I’ve been around for more than 20 years and I’ve certainly seen that the mainstream media’s attitude has changed. There’s still a limitation and it’s really quite profound frankly, around journalists not having one clue what they’re talking about when they cover an aboriginal issue. They don’t know what a treaty is. They don’t know what a TLE (Treaty Land Entitlement) is. They don’t know the difference between a Métis and an Indian for crying out loud,” said Avison.

Along with Bird, she suggests the answer to this is basic education—learning the vocabulary and understanding what makes aboriginal people unique in the province. There are key acts of legislation, leadership structures, and specialized protocols that all journalists need to know.

“You should be able to learn about going to a reserve. And what the governing structure of a First Nation in Saskatchewan is. And it’s quite simple. A lot of these things are pretty basic. But it’s good to be able to learn them before you actually get out into the field and into a professional newsroom,” said Bird.

Covering aboriginal stories can often present unique challenges. Reserves may be difficult to get to, there are certain cultural guidelines, there may be language barriers, and these things can make reporters unfamiliar with aboriginal issues uncomfortable. The lack of familiarity prevents coverage of certain issues, which in turn, translates into a public audience that is also uninformed on aboriginal affairs.

“As journalists I think we need to be very open minded and not afraid to go that extra step to learn about things such as this,” said Bird.

It’s also the role of journalists to look past the spokespeople and find real voices with real stories to tell—especially in the case of First Nations and Métis affairs.

“I find when journalists have a superficial understanding of the (aboriginal) community, they don’t have any networks, the only people they know to call is the chief usually,” said Avison.

“Often times it’s not about issues, it’s about people. So go find a person, and a chief is not a person. A chief in his capacity is an organization. You need to find the real people that are affected—parents and caregivers and so on, those are the people that (the media) needs to be finding, and the only way we find them is networking within that community,” says Avison.

But all the blame can’t be put solely on the media. Those on the receiving side of the coverage (or lack there of) need to reach out to journalists too.

It takes two to tango

Media literacy among First Nations leaders and organizers is just as important as literacy about aboriginal culture for journalists. First Nations communities and reserves have often been criticized for communicating poorly with the media and meeting their inquiries with chilly reception. Just as the mainstream media has tended to ignore coverage of aboriginal affairs in the news, aboriginal communities have also ignored the media.

A 2005 survey conducted by University of Regina journalism students proved there is some hostility. Students were assigned to simply contact a First Nations band office and speak to a chief or a councilor. In all, 68 reserves were contacted and only 25 responded. Of those, 12 were met with an unfriendly, rude, or reluctant reception.

“First Nations people tend to have this fear of the media. And what needs to happen is that so many chiefs and counselors and people in positions of management or communications on a reserve need to be able to use the media. They need to be able to approach the media and not always hide,” said Bird, who recognizes that even he doesn’t always have luck getting a story from First Nations communities.

 There has been progress in aboriginal coverage in the media over the last decade, but furthering the trend requires a change and cooperation from both parties.

“What I see right now is that there is a much greater willingness and interest in the mainstream media to cover aboriginal issues and tell aboriginal stories, and a real commitment to tell them better, but they can’t invent stories out of the air. They have to be met with a response from the community,” said Avison.

“There have to be people in the newsroom ready and willing to receive the information. But on the other hand, something has got to feed them.”

And that’s where Avison says more education for First Nations and Métis leaders comes in, and it comes in the form of two letters—PR.

“Be aware of the opportunity for doing public relations, for reaching out to the media, and providing them with information on things that are happening in the community. Understanding how to do that is half, and the second thing is trusting that the people who receive the information are going to handle it intelligently,” she said.

Avison instructs an INCA public relations class that teaches students how to create a positive relationship with the media, which is a crucial part of ensuring story reportage. When PR people make connections with newsrooms and the journalists within them, they are able to send their news releases to individuals who have a vested interest in the subject and will take an initiative in covering.

“So by aboriginal organizations doing media relations, at least the journalists are being provided with some leads on what might be interesting stories that really are newsworthy,” said Avison.

Organizations like the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) are working hard to do just that—increasing consideration is going towards making events appealing to the media in hopes of being chosen out of the pile of other daily news releases.

“When we plan events, I’m thinking, ‘Okay I want to try to get at least two maybe three days worth of news out of this. How do I do that? How do I create the follows?’ So it’s constant thinking, but you need to know the media and understand and be able to accept the limits that the media has today because of their resource issues,” said Brass, who is the current communications director with FSIN.

“Knowing that media rooms, newsrooms and television stations are all downsizing, (is important). It’s getting harder and harder for the message from organizations, regardless of who it is, to get out there. You’ve only got a small window.”

So it’s clear that better communication and more education are the keys to building a stronger relationship between the news media and those in aboriginal communities, but how is that achieved?

It’s all in the approach

A steady relationship is built on trust, and trust can only be developed when both parties are committed to cooperation.

This formula is no different when it comes to aboriginal people and the media.

Forming a cooperative relationship built on trust is beneficial for not only the parties involved—but it plays a significant role in helping to create a public who can recognize the equal importance that aboriginal people have in society.

The mainstream media plays a very important role in influencing and educating the public. So just as exclusionary reporting and an inaccurate portrayal of aboriginal people can cause negative affects, inclusionary and accurate reporting can help do the opposite— it can help create awareness of aboriginal affairs in Saskatchewan and stop the marginalization that is perpetuated through selective coverage.

“Ultimately I think there is room for improvement when it comes to the coverage of aboriginal people in this province, and I know that it will happen but there is a variety of reasons why it should happen but there’s also a variety of solutions to make it happen. Education in universities, in media newsrooms and just a general open mindedness for everyone,” said Bird.

“People need to open their eyes. Its so easy just to ignore.”

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