When and how should non-Indigenous reporters cover Indigenous stories?

by Gabby McMann
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How journalism needs to change to accurately portray Indigenous stories in Canadian media

Ever since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its Call to Action #86 in 2015, many newsrooms and journalism schools have been trying to improve coverage of Indigenous stories. As part of these efforts, the School of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University, in cooperation with the Centre for Freedom Expression and the RJRC, invited a group of Indigenous journalists to discuss best practice. The main takeaway? Non-Indigenous journalists need to build better relationships with Indigenous communities. 

The panel was moderated by CBC radio host Duncan McCue (Anishinaabe) and included Willow Fiddler (Oji-Cree Anishinaabe), a national reporter for The Globe and Mail, and award-winning journalist, Brandi Morin (Cree/Iroquois/French), who writes for publications like National Geographic and the Toronto Star.

McCue said that he is often asked by students if it is okay for non-Indigenous reporters to cover Indigenous stories. “We have a lot of non-Indigenous students who are hearing the calls to action from the TRC, saying that reporters need to be a part of reconciliation but they’re nervous or they don’t know if they have a role.” 

All of the panelists believed that non-Indigenous reporters do have a role to play in improving the coverage of Indigenous stories within the media. 

Morin said that there are not enough Indigenous journalists in Canadian newsrooms and there will be times when non-Indigenous reporters need to cover Indigenous stories, but they need to ensure Indigenous voices are being accurately and authentically represented in the media:

“That goes with educating themselves, learning about the communities and the context, and just going over and above in many areas to get it right because there has been such historical damage that has been done by the media,” said Morin. 

Fiddler said that it is important for non-Indigenous reporters to learn how to cover Indigenous stories because of the risk of Indigenous reporters being tokenized in Canadian newsrooms. 

Morin supported this, noting that not all Indigenous journalists want to cover Indigenous stories as they may have other areas of interest they want to report on. Thus newsrooms mustn’t solely rely on Indigenous journalists to report on stories coming out of Indigenous communities.  

McCue, Fiddler, and Morin identified that in order to accomplish the goal of improving media coverage of Indigenous stories, standard journalistic practices need to adapt and change. They offered these tips on best practices when reporting on Indigenous stories:

  • Educate and learn the context of the Indigenous communities that are being reported on. 
  • Build relationships and be a part of the community whose stories are being reported on. 
  • Do not extract information and stories from the communities, instead build meaningful connections that build trust.
  • Stay away from stereotypes and stigmas that surround the communities by providing context to the stories that are being represented in the media. 
  • Touch base with the community after the story has been published. 
  • Don’t bombard the community for information when covering difficult topics. 
  • Go into the story with meaningful intentions, such as making sure Indigenous voices are authentically represented in the media. 
  • Communicate with the chief and council to ensure you are following protocols while reporting in Indigenous communities. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help and resources from fellow Indigenous reporters but don’t rely on them as your only resource and respect any boundaries that they have established in terms of access to their contacts or communities. 
  • Use the platform and journalistic power that is available to push for Indigenous stories and voices to be heard on a national level.  

The panel also offered some suggestions on books that all journalists should read to learn more about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the media: Seeing Red, The Reconciliation Manifesto, and 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act.

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