New York Times article on Inuit draws backlash for reliance on stereotypes

The article by Catherine Porter, Canada bureau chief for the New York Times, has drawn criticism from Inuit and the wider public for playing into stereotypes of Indigenous people.
Life in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, was the focus of a recent New York Times article that faced backlash from Inuit. (Travis Burke/CBC)

When Francine Compton saw many Inuit frustrated by a recent article in the New York Times, she didn't want to read it. 

"I choose what I expose myself to, in terms of racism and stereotypes," Compton said. 

But as a director of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), she had to read the story, titled "Drawn from Poverty: Art was Supposed to Save Canada's Inuit. It Hasn't."

The article, written by the Times' Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter, drew criticism from Inuit and the wider public for playing into stereotypes of Indigenous people. 

The story listed many stereotypes of Indigenous people, Compton said, including addressing poverty, suicide, plight, and addiction.

In a statement sent to Unreserved, The Times defended its story, saying the issues in the stories "came up repeatedly in the lives of the people we interviewed and profiled."

NAJA stressed the need for an audit of how the article was published, said Compton, who is also an executive producer of national news at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. 

The Times agreed to meet with NAJA to discuss the article.

How a game of bingo might help the Times

NAJA has created a unique bingo card to help journalists avoid reproducing recurring tropes of Indigenous people.

The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) created a bingo card based on Indigenous stereotypes in media. It suggests if you read a story and cover a line, media should rethink or even kill that story. (Native American Journalists Association)

The bingo card is called "Bingo: Reporting in Indian Country Edition." Each square represents a stereotype often used in the media, including poor education, unemployment, references to the ancestors, or a casino, among others.

The card suggests reading the story and marking stereotypes as they come up. The more squares you hit, the more likely the story has a heavy reliance on stereotypes, NAJA said. If you score a bingo, NAJA suggests killing the story and consulting with them on next steps.

Compton said she played a round of bingo using the Times' article and found many stereotypes. It only took two paragraphs for her to score bingo. Compton said she even found some stereotypes that weren't on the card.

"That [Times' article] really bothered me as an Indigenous person in Canada because of their global audience and how the article portrayed Indigenous life in Canada as, well, poverty porn," said Compton.

Compton said NAJA met with the New York Times on Nov. 11 to discuss the article.

Francine Compton is an executive producer at APTN National News and a director for the Native American Journalists Association. (Submitted by Francine Compton)

"It was interesting to see the difference in perspectives," she said. "[There were] just straight up differences in the way we read it and in the way they read it."

"In the New York Times' defence, they stuck to their journalistic principles — they aim to bear witness, give voice and hold power to account … however, there wasn't very much of holding power to account in this piece."

This situation taught Compton a lot about where media is today on Indigenous reporting. She has one simple suggestion for newsrooms looking to improve their Indigenous coverage.

"Hire an Indigenous journalist," Compton said.