JHR report on Ontario’s media coverage of Aboriginal people, culture & issues

JHR report on Ontario’s media coverage of Aboriginal people, culture & issues

In June 2013, Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) — a Canadian media development organization that trains journalists throughout Africa — launched its first program in Canada. The Northern Ontario Initiative aims to ensure that media coverage of Aboriginal people in Ontario is balanced and contextualized appropriately. The project also focuses on improving non-Aboriginals Canadians’ understanding of Aboriginal issues, and creating job opportunities in media for Aboriginal people.

In order for JHR to accurately track the Northern Ontario Initative’s impact on media  coverage of Aboriginal people, it conducted a study examining recent media coverage. JHR commissioned Infomart, Canada’s leading media monitoring agency, to conduct a quantitative analysis of Ontario media’s coverage of Aboriginal people, culture and issues since June 2010.

The full report was just released. “Buried Voices: Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario,” shows that media stories about Aboriginal issues made up less than half of one per cent of media coverage. Most of that coverage focuses on crises. And most of the crisis coverage is negative.

The whole thing is important reading (see www.jhr.ca or www.dibaajimo.com), but I was pleased to be asked for my take on the data. Here’s RIIC’s perspective.

Yes, it’s disappointing to have a study which confirms that Aboriginal issues in Ontario are less than half of one percent of total media coverage — even in 2013, when Idle No More protests “spiked” media attention.

Simply put, if Aboriginal peoples represent approximately 2% of the population of Ontario, it’s shameful that Aboriginal issues still only occupy less than .5% of online and print media in Ontario.

But it’s not a surprise.

There have been similar studies – analyzing different time periods, different regions of Canada and different media outlets. All demonstrate Aboriginal peoples are consistently under-represented in traditional mainstream media.

What should concern every news editor in Canada is what this study really shows: today’s media outlets have failed to increase Aboriginal content, despite knowing full well that Aboriginal under-representation in the media is a longstanding problem.

What should concern every news editor in Canada is what this study really shows: today’s media outlets have failed to increase Aboriginal content, despite knowing full well that Aboriginal under-representation in the media is a longstanding problem

It can only lead to the conclusion that senior news editors and producers don’t know how to fix the problem, or, more troubling, don’t really care.

Diving deeper into the study, it’s reasonable to further conclude senior newsroom managers aren’t always objective when it comes to the ways they assign coverage of Aboriginal issues.

The study shows news media generally make efforts to balance the “positive” and “negative” tone of Aboriginal coverage – for example, publishing articles that both support and criticize First Nations’ rejection of the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

But, during the heightened coverage generated by Idle No More protests, there was twice as much “negative” as “positive” coverage – much of which “stemmed from editorials and opinion columns.”

In other words, during periods of conflict and tension, what shapes the tone of media coverage aren’t necessarily journalists on the ground reporting facts, but senior writers based in urban newsrooms proffering opinion. Sadly, analysis of media coverage during flash points such as Oka, Ipperwash, and Gustafsen Lake has shown similar trends, and suggests these opinions are often rooted in century-old stereotypes rather than reality.

A final note about the study: while Canadians may get frustrated when First Nations use road blockades to voice political concerns, this study plainly illustrates such “direct action” tactics lead to significant increases in mainstream media coverage, which in turn leads to some type of response from Ottawa.

The squeaky wheel does, indeed, get grease.