News coverage of indigenous issues lacks balance, context: panel discussion


Special to the RJRC

When Kyle Edwards tells people he grew up on a reserve [in Winnipeg], he says they look at him like he’s “survived a disaster.”

“Here at Ryerson [University], I get a lot of questions that [make me] ask myself, ‘shouldn’t you know this?’” the second-year journalism student said during a panel discussion of news reporting on indigenous issues. “A couple of girls at one of my student group events asked me if I pay taxes and they wouldn’t believe me when I said yes.”

Edwards, an Ojibwe from the Lake Manitoba First Nation in Manitoba and a member of Ryerson University’s Indigenous Student Association, was one of three speakers on the Feb. 3 panel entitled “Charting a New Path: News Reporting on Canadian Indigenous Communities.” The event was organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and moderated by journalism instructor Lisa Taylor.

Connie Walker, the lead reporter for CBC Aboriginal, said most journalists lack even basic knowledge about how to describe Canada’s various indigenous populations.

She said it is particularly galling when people use the term “Aboriginal” interchangeably with “First Nations,” “Inuit,” or “Metis.”

“If they know that the person is First Nations, be as specific as [possible],” said Walker. “Aboriginal means First Nations, Inuit or Metis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you use that term when you know for sure that it’s an Inuit person.”

Walker compared it to describing someone as being from Ontario when you know they live in Toronto.

Walker, who worked for CBC’s main service before joining the Aboriginal service, said that the journalism cliche, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is particularly true when it comes to coverage of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.

She said CBC Aboriginal offers an alternative to these kinds of stories by giving context and background on conflicts in the news.

“[We want to] provide a better understanding about what’s in play the next time you see a story about a residential school or missing or murdered indigenous women,” Walker said.

Delaney Windigo, a video journalist for APTN National News, told the audience of about 60 students and faculty, that balanced coverage of Indigenous people is missing in the daily news.

“We can do the negative or hard-hitting stories, but then we also [need] to do the positive [ones],” she said, noting that one way to provide balance would be to write profiles of Indigenous people involved in Toronto’s thriving arts and culture community.

Windigo said that journalists need to provide better historical context to help the public understand indigenous issues.

One way to address such problems, Edwards said, would be for journalism schools to do a better job of infusing content about indigenous issues into their curriculum.

He pointed to one course he took that examined critical issues in journalism such as human rights, race and diversity, but spent only “about five minutes” talking about indigenous issues.

“I honestly feel like there’s just not a lot of knowledge of Aboriginal people,” he said. “With any story, you need to be knowledgeable about what you’re talking about, and reading Aboriginal stories in the news, [it’s clear that] a lot of people don’t understand what’s going on.”

Walker agreed that reporting on indigenous issues could be improved if reporters had an overall better understand of history and relevant policies and legislation, such as the Indian Act, which still governs many aspects of life on reserves to this day.

“Some of those building blocks […] inform a lot of misinformation about First Nations, Inuit and Metis people in Canada,” she observed.

Walker nonetheless said there have been positive developments in terms of coverage of indigenous issues.

“I have seen a dramatic improvement in the attitudes within the newsroom in terms of recognition of the importance and appetite for these kinds of stories,” she said. “Not just within Indigenous communities, but within mainstream Canada.”

“I think there’s still a lot of work to do, but I’m definitely excited for the next few years.”

Lauren Harris is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University.