Canadian newspapers do not devote enough resources to aboriginal issues, but recent focus on missing and murdered indigenous women a sign of change, says a new media monitoring report.
OTTAWA—Canadian newspapers do not devote enough resources to aboriginal issues, but recent the focus on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is an encouraging sign of change, says a report by researchers at York University.
“We felt it was really important to put a critical lens on how the print media was shaping the national discourse and conversation on the missing and murdered aboriginal women,” said Daniel Drache, senior research fellow at the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) declared in its final report released last year that journalists and the outlets they work for have a role to play in making sure that coverage of indigenous peoples reflects their cultural diversity and reports on their issues fairly and without discrimination.
The media monitoring report he co-authored with Fred Fletcher, a professor emeritus at York University, suggests there is much room for improvement.
The report published April 2, called “What the Canadian Public is Being Told about the more than 1,200 Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and First Nations Issues,” examined some 30,000 articles about indigenous individuals and communities in eight major daily English-language Canadian newspapers — including the Star — from 2006 to 2015.
They did a second, more in-depth search of a slightly different sample from May 1, 2014 to April 30, 2015, which coincided with a sustained period of attention to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, but did not appear to have caused an increase in reporting on other, unrelated aboriginal issues.
The report identifies certain turning points that seemed to increase the attention of the mainstream media on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, with the May 2014 report by the RCMP revealing the number of cases to be nearly 1,200 being one of them.
The even bigger turning point, the report suggests, was the August 2014 death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl from Sagkeeng First Nation in northern Manitoba whose body was found in the Red River in Winnipeg.
“The media had to find a figure to personalize the story and they found this in this young woman from northern Manitoba,” said Drache, adding that this allowed Canadians to connect with the story that did not always come naturally, especially in areas of the country where indigenous and non-indigenous people do not often interact.
“They need something that bridges that distance, psychologically in terms of the story itself.”
Angela Sterritt, a CBC reporter from the Gitxsan Nation in northwestern B.C. who is writing a book on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, remembers the days when her stories about the inquiry into the Robert Pickton case received very little notice.
She agrees the story of Fontaine and the RCMP report were turning points, but also thinks the amount and tone of stories about indigenous issues coincided with the grassroots Idle No More movement that began in late 2012, which she said got away from quoting the same chiefs and activists time and again.
“You saw the mechanic, the single mom, the student, all wanting to show their voices, and that sort of bravery really sort of transformed the way we told stories,” Sterritt said.
There are other areas in the report, however, that should give newsrooms plenty of food for thought.
One thing researchers noticed was that coverage of indigenous issues could be described as a “searchlight phenomenon,” with intense, in-depth coverage of a major event or issue, such as the TRC report or the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, Ont., followed by very little once it was done.
The report also highlighted when stories about indigenous issues included voices of indigenous people and when they did not — with the articles from the 2014-15 sample including indigenous voices only 53 per cent of the time.
The Star’s public editor, Kathy English, said the newspaper strives to do more.
“I think the issues are important enough to merit more and deeper coverage by the Star,” she wrote in an email.
Daniel Drache, the co-author of the media analysis on how Canadian newspapers cover indigenous issues suggested ways journalists and newsrooms can get better.
- Cover indigenous issues, people and communities more often, so that stories do not disappear from their pages after a major event is over or crisis has been resolved.
- Devote resources to hiring indigenous journalists and developing a lot more expertise in covering this area by having reports cover the beat full-time.
- Get better at addressing the systemic nature and root causes of issues facing indigenous people and communities, such as racism, colonialism and the ongoing impact of the Indian residential school system.