The Doc Project

Reporting in Indigenous communities: 5 tips to get it right

Reporting in Indigenous communities can be tough. It’s not just navigating sensitive issues like those surrounding stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women, but covering complex terrain in stories that include the Indian Act, treaties and land claims to name a few. Award­-winning journalist Angela Sterritt shares tips to help get it right.
Gitxsan journalist Angela Sterritt interviews Ashley Callingbull in her Enoch community for a TV segment on CBC's 8th Fire.

Reporting in Indigenous communities can be tough. It's not just navigating sensitive issues like those surrounding stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women, but covering complex terrain in stories that include the Indian Act, treaties and land claims to name a few. It's not always easy to get it right.

As a journalist at CBC, I've covered hundreds stories in Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories, downstream from the oilsands and in my own Gitanmaax community, in Northwest B.C. But even as an Indigenous reporter, there are times when I grapple with how to tell a sensitive story in an Indigenous community.

Angela Sterritt reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a day before the report is released.
So over the last few years I began to research and share tactics about how to get it right. I worked with Journalists for Human Rights, an organization that has uncovered how Canadian Indigenous stories are left out or negatively slanted in media in a study (Buried Voices: Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario) recently recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

With JHR, I facilitated a course for journalists in newsrooms across Canada, called Reporting in Indigenous Communities, modeled on Duncan McCue's popular web site and UBC class, RIIC. Here are some tips we gathered to foolproof your Indigenous journalism.

1. Be cautious of stereotyping

In a recent media workshop, I screened what I considered an excellent news story about voting in an Indigenous community. It was an emotional, engaging and empowering story focusing on two young main characters. I paused at certain scenes to explain what the reporter and the interviewee were doing to make compelling TV.

But a student stopped me to ask why the reporter questioned the youth about the type of drugs he used growing up - "oxytocin or meth"? "What did that have to do with the story," the student probed. It stopped me in my tracks. I knew it gave the story weight and context about the hurdles this community had overcome, but I also thought, how often would we ask non-Indigenous people this same question for a story unrelated to drugs and alcohol? Surely many people of different races have had brushes with and even struggled with addictions.

It's a lesson about inserting our own bias about Indigenous people, intentionally or inadvertently into our storytelling. The tip here is to think about what biases or tropes you are bringing to your stories with your own preconceptions about Indigenous people.

Here are some common tropes to avoid:

a) The victim narrative: depicting Indigenous people or a person as collapsing under the burden of history or current realities, or overcoming tragedies that have no root cause.

b) The addict and alcoholic stereotype: exhibiting a person's past or current substance abuse when it is unrelated to the story.

c) The warrior trope: rather than looking at concerns as legitimate political, environmental or socio-economic ones – painting an Indigenous person as a trouble maker, or as irrational, even violent.

d) The greedy chief label: instead of telling a robust story about finances, treaties and lands in Indigenous communities, showcasing a narrow or crude presentation of the issues. Recently one chief's high wages were used to paint all chiefs in a similar light, for example.

Being sensitive to stereotyping is not the same as avoiding pertinent issues that actually exist.  As journalists, we have a duty to accurately and objectively report on issues. But there are ways we can do this while still being sensitive to the challenges of Indigenous reporting. Which leads us to the next tip.

2. Try to place Indigenous history and context into your story

Chantelle Bellrichard, a Metis journalist, on her way to Lelu Island with the Skidegate Saints basketball team.
If you're new to this beat, this may seem like a daunting task, but there are simple ways to include depth, context and intricate history into your story. If your editor won't budge on word count, suggest placing in value-added content in the form of sidebars, shadow boxes, graphics or charts. Sometimes adding in just one line of text can help to provide important background. For TV stories, this context can be placed in your supers or in animated graphics.

Context example: A paragraph explaining why there are increased rates of violent crimes in Indigenous communities or historical reasons that have lead to substance abuse to ensure that you're not reporting on an issue in a silo. If you're looking at the effect, you also need to look at the cause.

Also, one Indigenous person's voice is not representative of all.

3. Consult a variety of sources

I've done this, heck we've all done this — rely on that one Indigenous chief, professor or community activist to represent a whole spectrum of views and thoughts of all Indigenous people.

But if you're looking for the Indigenous perspective in your story, it will be difficult to find it since Indigenous peoples in Canada are not homogenous. Even within smaller communities, diverse viewpoints exist. This doesn't mean it's easy to capture all voices, but being aware that many perspectives, worldviews and thoughts exist is the first step to not pigeon-holing the Indigenous people in your story.

4. Get beyond the crisis — find balance between good and bad stories

The majority of news is about reporting on issues and exposing what's not working — important and necessary of course. But media tends to have shortfalls in journalism about people, organizations and events that are making change.

A way to balance the stories we tell is through solution-focused journalism. It's not the same as advocacy journalism or reporting on a neighbourhood that banded together to save a cat stuck in a tree — it's about looking at real, substantive issues and highlighting those who are pursuing change.

Some good examples of solution-based journalism:

This is exceptionally relevant when reporting on Indigenous issues. While the public needs to know that conditions on reserves can be dramatically worse than in urban areas, or that social discrepancies exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, it is also important to investigate how people are attempting to change these situations.

Solution-based journalism can allow media coverage of Aboriginal people and communities to broaden its scope beyond crisis and find balance in the newsroom between "bad" and "good" news stories.

5. Create positive relationships

Anishinaabe journalist Waubgeshig Rice in Ottawa where he reports as a VJ for the CBC.
Reporting in the north and in remote communities I learned quickly that there are strong views about the media. Remember, as journalists working for mainstream media, we represent and work for a powerful social structure. For Indigenous people with an historical and continued negative relationship with institutions, this presents a challenge for us as journalists.

If you're reporting on sensitive issues, 'gotcha journalism' will do you more harm than good. Be very clear about who you are, why you're there and the exact type of information you're looking for. Here are some quick go to tips for building relationships with Indigenous people and communities:

  • Call often, even when there isn't a story
  • Follow up after stories are done: this will be seen as respectful by communities that value reciprocity
  • Check Indigenous news websites for under-reported story ideas
  • Create tabs in your social media manager that capture activity from local First Nations and affiliated groups
  • Include Indigenous People in your non-Indigenous stories
  • Find a balance in the newsroom between "bad" and "good" news stories
  • Allow for extra time, especially for elders
  • Request permission to photograph or film a ceremony
  • Clearly state expectations
  • Consult a variety of sources

Most of all, keep learning. Don't beat yourself up for making mistakes (we are all still learning). The language we choose to use, the concepts and the history we decide to leave out, all have impacts on Indigenous people and communities. It is up to us as journalists; it is our responsibility to get it right.

The most frequent question I get asked in workshops by journalists is: "What do we ... um … call you in our stories?"

Good question. 

First and foremost always try to use a person's or people's specific nation, First Nation or community. For example, "She is an Inuk from Cambridge Bay", or "He is Gitxsan from Kispiox", or "They are Annishnabe from the Sagkeeng First Nation."

Indigenous – The word many prefer as it connotes a connection to the land or traditional territory. It is also the official word used by the United Nations. The word Indigenous refers to Inuit, Metis and First Nations.

Aboriginal – The term enshrined in the Canadian constitution to identify the original inhabitants of Canada. It was also the preferred term used by the federal government, up until the last election. The word Aboriginal refers to Inuit, Metis and First Nations. 

First Nation – There are over 630 distinct First Nations in Canada. The term came into effect in the '70s to replace the word Indian, which is now considered a derogatory word by many. It refers to both status and non-status Indians. It is also interchangeable with the word "band" or "community" in some instances. More recently the term has shifted to indicate those who identify with recognized reserve or band communities.

Inuit – Indigenous people originating from Northern Canada in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador. The word means "people" in Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk.

Metis – A post-contact Indigenous people with roots in the historic Red River community.

Status Indian or non-status Indian – An individual's legal status as an Indian, as defined by the Indian Act. A person could be full Indigenous to Canada, but because of historical circumstances are non-status Indian (Indian status: 5 things you need to know).

About the author

Angela Sterritt
Angela Sterritt is an award­-winning journalist who has worked with the CBC since 2003 as a television and radio reporter, and an online writer. Her reports have aired on CBC's The NationalNews NowWorld ReportWorld at SixThe CurrentAs It Happens and local programming. Sterritt was a producer on CBC's 8th FireRevision Quest and The Trailbreaker. She was recently awarded a prestigious William Southam Journalism Fellowship at Massey College in Toronto and is the first Indigenous person to receive the award since its inception in 1962. 

With files from Miles Kenyon.