It’s time to say goodbye to fly-by journalism

by Gabby McMann
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A photo of a building on the Toronto Metropolitan university campus. There is wall art on the building saying 'Made of GRIT."
Jorgenson Hall on November 17th 2022. The Orange Shirt Day events took place inside the Jorgenson Hall building on the TMU Campus on September 30th 2022. (TMU J-SCHOOL/ Gabrielle McMann)

Journalism in Canada has a history of enforcing stereotypes, controlling the narrative and extracting stories from First Nations communities. This is why the School of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University prioritizes educating students on how to properly report Indigenous stories. 

In one of my classes, we were assigned a broadcast story a few days before the university’s Orange Shirt Day, a day to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I assumed that some of my classmates would report on campus events. 

 I was already planning on attending those events, to pay my respects and bond with my community. I also thought I might find people to interview for my assignment. I was focusing on the City of Toronto’s decision to rename Dundas Street as an act of reconciliation towards Black and Indigenous communities. I even thought I might interview people at the events. 

However, on the morning of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, I walked to campus with a heavy heart. I could feel the significance of the day weighing on me, even as my assignment loomed over my head. There was a deadline and I needed to get these interviews done. 

I went back and forth, but decided that I would make connections with people and exchange information but wouldn’t do any interviews. I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable pulling people away from their reflections, as they were gathering to commemorate pain, trauma, loss and resiliency. Instead, I went to Orange Shirt Day as a member of the Indigenous community and set aside my role as a journalist. 

When I arrived, there was a person sitting at a table who seemed close in age to me, so I asked if I could sit next to them. We immediately clicked and soon we were talking about our families, our beliefs, and sharing experiences from our journeys. 

Although we were deep in conversation, we were interrupted by someone tapping me on the shoulder and asking if I was in the Journalism program. I looked over and saw two students that I recognized from my classes. I responded with a ‘yes’ and then they turned to the person I was talking with and asked if they would be willing to do an interview. 

The person I was seated with proceeded to ask them what their names were and why they were there. The two students introduced themselves and one of them said, “I want to learn more about the Indigenous community and I have an assignment to do.” 

After a brief, informal conversation, the students asked again about the interview. “So would you mind if we pulled you away for 10 minutes so that we could ask you some questions?,” one said to my companion.

The person I was sitting with politely declined. The two students quietly left the table with their disappointment showing and then moved on to other potential interview subjects. 

Later on in the day, we were closing the event with a community meditation walk. A representative from the Aboriginal Student Association joined the gathering and started the opening prayer. I spotted my classmates videotaping the prayer, but didn’t see them asking the speaker if that was okay. As we started the walk, the students jumped in and out of the group to take videos for the assignment. 

I understand that the two students are still learning about the process of reporting in Indigenous communities. So am I. As noted, I also thought about doing interviews at the event. But for some reason, their actions weighed on me for the rest of the day. 

I witnessed how my classmates behaved through two different lenses: I experienced it as a journalist and as a member of the Indigenous community. Both viewpoints left me uneasy.  

The first thing that struck me was the feeling of being disregarded. The students came up to me knowing that I was a journalist and interrupted my conversation without remorse. What if I had been in the middle of an interview? As an Indigenous journalist at an event for my community, I also felt as if my classmates saw an opening — as if talking to me would give them access to the person I was seated with. 

As a student journalist, it is okay to make mistakes. We all have a lot to learn as beginners. It is also important to assert that this article is not intended to call out these two specific students, but rather to draw attention to existing issues in fly-by journalism, something the industry has practiced for decades. This type of reporting can be extractive and draining, because it lacks connection, trust and understanding between journalists and the people or community involved in the story.  

 It is my belief that journalists must take the lead in fostering better relationships between Indigenous communities and the media. What would following best practice have looked like in this situation? 

Maybe, the students could have avoided interrupting our conversation, then made a formal introduction: telling us their names, what they were reporting on and why they wanted to interview my companion. If you are reporting on a traditional ceremony, it is also best to ask the organizers if and when it’s okay to take videos and pictures and, if you are given the go ahead, avoid being intrusive.

There are many resources available to journalism students that provide insight into the best practices for reporting in Indigenous communities. My advice is not to take these resources for granted, including the information you can find on this website. I can say from personal experience that when you build relationships based on trust and respect with the people you interview, it will be displayed in the stories you write. 

So why didn’t I say something at the time or talk to my fellow students afterwards to get their comments for this article? The truth is I’m tired — feeling drained by the expectation that I am the one who must explain why we as journalists need to do things differently and not just be “takers” of people’s stories. 

The role of a journalist is important. We have the privilege of sharing stories with the world. This is a privilege that should be taken seriously.  My hope in writing this story is that it will encourage all journalism students to approach their role as journalists with humility — and to show respect and gratitude towards the people granting you the power to tell their truth and share their voice.

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