Flaws in media coverage of aboriginal peoples

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Peter Mansbridge

It’s heartening to see the mainstream media’s sudden interest in the multiple crises facing Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Federal politicians, including the prime minister, have been forced to react to the graphic reporting from Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario where people have been huddling in unheated tents, condemned housing and portable trailers in sub-zero temperatures. Media reports have made it clear that many Native reserves face similar crises. It’s also clear that the desperate conditions endured by Canada’s aboriginal peoples represent a massive failure of public institutions including the mainstream news media themselves.

Thus, it was interesting to watch Peter Mansbridge Monday night introducing updates to previous CBC reports. Reporter Reg Sherren revisited the Wasagamack First Nation in northern Manitoba. In the year 2000, Sherren reported on the lack of clean water and sewage disposal; sky-high food prices; an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and a chronic shortage of adequate housing. On his recent return, Sherren found that “life hasn’t changed a lot in the last 12 years.” The biggest change was that everyone suffering from diabetes who appeared in his first story had since died. A shot of white wooden crosses in the local graveyard underlined that sombre point.

Meanwhile, Duncan McCue’s return to Gilford Island, B.C. was, in his words, “deja-vu all over again.” Six years ago, McCue reported that Gilford Island was facing a water crisis and that many homes were full of toxic mould. Today, there’s a new water plant and a few new homes, but federal bureaucrats seem to have abandoned the village. “We’ve been forgotten,” Chief Bob Chamberlain told McCue, “and we’re halfway towards the solution.”

It may have been unintentional, but Sherren and McCue’s updates aptly illustrated the CBC’s fitful interest in conditions on aboriginal reserves. Why did it take nearly 12 years, for example, for the CBC to send Sherren back to Wasagamack?

Part of the answer lies in the routines of mainstream journalism. Journalists think they need a “peg” for the stories they tell, something that makes those stories newsworthy. In this case, the state of emergency in Attawapiskat provided a peg to hang similar stories on. To someone not versed in the strange standards of mainstream journalism, that might seem weird. If a reporter files a story on a crisis facing a Native reserve, wouldn’t it make sense to check back periodically to see if conditions have improved? Well, not without a “good, solid peg,” it wouldn’t.

Lessons from Ipperwash

I first became interested in how standard journalistic routines inhibit the coverage of aboriginal peoples in August 1993 when The National carried a report from Ipperwash, Ontario where Native people were occupying a military camp. “Tense situation tonight at a Canadian Forces camp in southern Ontario,” a younger-looking Mansbridge told viewers. He added that the occupation had been going on for three months, but that someone had fired a shot at a military helicopter. Bingo! There was the “peg” that made the story newsworthy enough for national attention.

Reporter Paul Hunter had been despatched to Ipperwash where he talked to two of the Native occupiers as well as a military spokesman. The Natives said the military had taken the land from them temporarily during the Second World War and now, after more than 50 years of waiting, they wanted it back. Major Brian Hay insisted the military had purchased the land from the Natives. “This is a bought and paid for public site that has been here for 50 years.”

Hunter obviously did not know that a year earlier, a Parliamentary committee had unanimously called on the military to “rectify a serious injustice” and hand the land back. So, he covered himself by quoting “both sides” and leaving it at that. The National let the story lie for more than two years before another “peg” compelled the CBC to return to it — the police shooting death of Dudley George, a young native man, in Ipperwash Provincial Park. Only then did Mansbridge tell viewers that the Native occupiers had been right all along — the military were supposed to return the land after the Second World War. For an account of how The National covered the Ipperwash story over a 10-year period, see CBC Ipperwash coverage.

Yes, it is encouraging that the mainstream media are focussing once again on the deplorable conditions that Canada’s First Nations are forced to endure. But past practice also shows that journalists will stick with the story only if they think it can be hung on a newsworthy peg. As long as the political uproar continues in the House of Commons, for example, this story will continue to be told. But when the politicians move on, the media are likely to follow.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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One Response to

Flaws in media coverage of aboriginal peoples

  1. Ben Sichel says:

    Good analysis, Bruce. One thing I’m wondering: I remember once at a media workshop with you, you remarked that for an item to make it into the news, it needs something to make it a ‘story’ rather than a ‘topic.’ This would seem to be the ‘peg’ you’re talking about above. Is it fair to conclude then that not all ‘topics’ should have to wait for ‘pegs’ to become ‘stories’? (Sorry for the excessive use of quotes)
    -Ben

    Bruce Wark responds:

    I’d say that the concepts “peg” and “story” are interrelated. In this case, the peg for the Ipperwash reporting was what made it a story suitable for a national newscast. The National ignored the Native occupation of the military camp for three months until someone shot at a military helicopter. Obviously, the news editors didn’t think the land dispute itself was enough of a story to broadcast on The National. The shot at the helicopter created a timely peg and an added element of conflict that elevated the story in their minds to one of national importance. Since news storytelling is a dramatic form, conflict is one of its essential elements. In the case of Ipperwash, The National did not return to the story until the fatal police shooting of Dudley George two years later. I think Henry and Tator make an important critical point when they write: “Routinely news is about events, not conditions; about conflict, not consensus; and about facts which advance the story, not about those which explain it.” See: http://mediaspin.ca/cbc-ipperwash-coverage/

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