Can media founded as colonial enterprises overcome their history to better serve Indigenous issues and reporters?
By Luke Ottenhof
In June, Canada’s National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released a painful 1,200-page report. Conducted over three years, the commission concluded that the rate of deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls in Canada constituted genocide. While the report was covered extensively in mainstream North American news media, the inquiry’s use of the word “genocide”—based on extensive research, a clear legal definition, and more than 2,000 sources — was roundly rejected by many outlets. The Globe and Mail, the Great North’s paper of record, ran an unbylined editorial refuting and minimizing the claim. The Washington Post published an op-ed that chastised the language for its impact on the views of white moderates.
The response was symptomatic of North American media’s lingering condescension and often willful incomprehension when it comes to Native American communities. From the first newspapers, this has been a feature, not a bug, of media in the western hemisphere. The earliest papers were created by settlers as tools for the construction and maintenance of claims to this continent’s lands, which required negating the rights and humanity of Indigenous communities.
In the 329 years since the first edition of the first paper in North America was printed, many Indigenous journalists and observers say that not enough has changed.
Cara McKenna is the editor of the Salish Sea Sentinel, a monthly magazine published by the tribal council that services Coast Salish communities on Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. While McKenna says that there are plenty of media workers in mainstream newsrooms trying their best to report on these communities, colonial attitudes — especially as they present in an outlet’s structure and hierarchy — still impact these organizations’ ability to report respectfully and accurately.
McKenna saw an example of this up close while working for Nanaimo Daily News, a daily print paper on Vancouver Island. In 2013, the paper ran a particularly racist and anti-Indigenous letter to the editor. The community protested, and the letter was retracted. (Though the Daily News “would defend [the author] Mr. Olsen’s right to hold and express his opinion.”) McKenna says some people from the region’s First Nations no longer wanted to interact with the paper after the letter was published, especially after a second letter with a similar sentiment was published in 2014. “Rightfully, people in the communities did not trust the paper at all [after that],” she says. “It was so frustrating and demoralizing because it was a decision made by one editor, and the majority of us on staff were extremely upset when we saw the letters. But that doesn’t erase the damage it did.”
Such situations are not unique to North American media, but are found throughout countries built on displaced Indigenous nations. A 2006 headline in Australian broadsheet The Australian declared, “Blacks find ways to get high,” making reference to “petrol sniffers in Aboriginal communities.” In 2009, Australian journalist Andrew Bolt published an article questioning the legitimacy of light-skinned Aboriginal people. A group of Aboriginal women sued him successfully under the Racial Discrimination Act. Murri activist and organizer Kim Bullimore published a research paper on Australian media coverage that found Aboriginal Australians critically underrepresented and stereotyped. “While racism is not as overt as it once was in the Australian media, it still exists,” Bullimore concluded.
McKenna joined the Salish Sea Sentinel in 2017 after years of working in mainstream newsrooms. While racism thrives most visibly in op-ed sections, McKenna notes similar attitudes are often coded into reporting and newsroom structures. “When it’s not a straight-out racist editorial, you often see Indigenous people’s experiences being cheapened and exploited and misrepresented, which is just as big of a problem,” she says.
This is why many Indigenous journalists elect to work with publications better equipped to tell their stories, says McKenna. Award-winning independent photojournalist and writer Mary Annette Pember left mainstream journalism behind in 1998 after 15 years. She now works almost exclusively in media by and for Indigenous communities. “I left and I’ve never looked back,” she says. “I don’t have all the money or the healthcare coverage, but I also don’t get sick as much.” Pember says the dissembling required of Indigenous journalists working in mainstream newsrooms was exhausting and unhealthy. “Usually the measure of success for most people of color in journalism is your ability to talk that talk and mimic them,” Pember continues. “It’s not a rewarding experience in the long-term.”
Pember says that notions of objectivity, which remain cherished in journalism schools, are often used to police non-white writers. When she worked in national news media, Pember was told she couldn’t cover Indigenous communities because she wouldn’t be sufficiently “objective.” She questioned why her bosses didn’t have any issues with white male writers covering white male politicians at city hall. “My editor just laughed and said, ‘You’re a smart-ass, get back to work’,” Pember says.
When Native American Journalists’ Association president and High Country editor Tristan Ahtone began a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he had planned to develop ethics guidelines for covering Indigenous issues that he hoped would help check biased coverage and increase accountability. Asked how the guidelines came together, Ahtone laughs. “I actually never did that,” he says. “I realized that those ethics guidelines exist already.”
Ahtone notes that the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is clear about how to carry out ethical reporting, but that they just weren’t being applied. “There’s no point in coming up with a new set of guidelines if news organizations aren’t following the old ones,” he says. “Our industry is all about accountability except when it’s about itself.”
If there are clear and ready fixes for media shortcomings in covering Indigenous issues, why aren’t they being implemented? Ahtone notes that doing so would require some very deep soul searching and reconciling with a difficult history. “You have to contend with the nature and history of land theft and genocide,” says Ahtone. “It raises questions over the entire American story.”
Much of this story, as it happens, can be told through newspapers, and in particular through their often vicious coverage of Indigenous populations and issues.
The first known multi-page newspaper in North America was Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, a short-lived monthly published out of Boston in 1690. It was shut down quickly by British authorities, but its sole issue made derogatory reference to Indigenous communities in over half of its stories. In Lay Of The Land: American Indians and the Mass Media, the Apache academic John P. Sanchez identifies this paper as an origin point for stereotyping and dehumanizing of Indigenous peoples in North American settler media. Nearly a century later, the Declaration of Independence would refer to “merciless Indian savages.”
In 1845, it was the New York journalist and editor John O’Sullivan who popularized the influential term “Manifest destiny” — the idea that God’s plan for the young United States justified the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples across North America. O’Sullivan used it as a moral imperative in an article for the New York Morning News which argued in favor of annexing Texas. A few months later, the same publication used the phrase to prop up a defense of the United States’ right to Oregon Territory.
The media in Canada has a similar history. In their 2011 book, Seeing Red: A History of Natives In Canadian Newspapers, authors Carmen L. Robertson and Mark Cronlund Anderson catalogue anti-Indigenous sentiment in the Canadian press from 1869 to present day. They assert that given the persistence of this sort of representation, the country continues to operate in denial of its own bias.
Historian Kenton Storey researched this dynamic for his book Settler Anxiety at the Outposts of Empire. Storey zoomed in on two case studies — newspapers in British Columbia and New Zealand — and investigated how each fomented anxiety in settlers by demonizing First Nations and Maori peoples. Storey specifically looks at “how colonial journalists… utilized humanitarian language to advocate for land-hungry settlers,” finding that newspapers were “the right medium for evangelizing this particular dialect of imperialism.” Then-governor James Douglas deployed a “politics of terror” against First Nations even as the press was popularly viewed as an “enemy of tyranny” and essentially a moral mechanism.
Pember, for one, is skeptical of newsrooms overcoming this history anytime soon. In 1998, concerned for her health, she decided to stop trying to shift her work environments and change her colleagues’ conscious and un-conscious prejudices. “At some point you decide, ‘I’m not dying on that hill,’” she says. “[Real change] would be such a fundamental disruption. All they have to change is everything.”
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Find him on Twitter at @lukeottenhof.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.1
Last edited: September 9, 2019
Author: Luke Ottenhof
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick