White Characters and the Question of Agency

Perhaps most destructive to the image of Aboriginal people is the lack of character and personality accorded them by the media. Aboriginal people are almost always cast in supporting roles or relegated to the background, and are rarely allowed to speak or display a real personality. And what character they do have tends to reveal itself only in terms of their interactions with white people. Rarely is an Aboriginal portrayed as having personal strengths and weaknesses, or shown acting on his or her own values and judgments.
–    Media Awareness.ca

Credit: MGM Studios

Hollywood was agog when Kevin Costner released his epic western Dances with Wolves in 1990. Real Aboriginal actors! Speaking Lakota, with subtitles! Aboriginal characters with differing opinions – some wanted to fight the white soldiers, some wanted peace!

But, much like the journals of the first European explorers and missionaries, Dances With Wolves revolves around a white guy’s experience. “I’ve always wanted to see the frontier,” says Costner’s character Lt. John J. Dunbar, “before it’s gone.” The movie purported to treat Aboriginal peoples sympathetically; instead, it robbed Aboriginal peoples of voice.

Reporters would do well to remember Dances With Wolves (or other big Hollywood movies about Aboriginal people – Little Big Man, Thunderheart, or Avatar) when trying to sort out which interviews or characters to include in your story.

How often do we lead with a quote from a non-Aboriginal expert, who offers a broad perspective on the issue at hand? How often do our news stories contain helpless Aboriginal people, waiting for a government department to fix some dire problem?

Ask yourself: will Aboriginal people have agency in my story?

The question of agency — or who has the power to act — is important, because good news stories are more than a compendium of facts. Skillful news reporters use the same storytelling techniques as fiction writers or movie directors: dramatic arc, heroes and villains, denouement. Believe it or not, race and culture also plays a role in our decisions on how to frame a story.

Ask yourself: will Aboriginal people have agency in my story?

Reporters often treat Aboriginal people differently than non-Aboriginal people, according to one study of news coverage of Aboriginal child welfare issues. Social work professor Robert Harding found Aboriginal people are predominantly constructed as “victims” in news stories while non-Aboriginal people are typically portrayed as “heroes.”

Furthermore, reporters usually cast non-Aboriginal people as active participants in news events, whereas Aboriginal people are most likely to be assigned roles as passive recipients of events beyond their control. (For instance, in a story about a health crisis in a First Nations community, the reporter may build her story around a non-Aboriginal doctor, as she treats people at a clinic, then interview a non-Aboriginal government official to offer context to the crisis, without ever interviewing any Aboriginal people.)

For Aboriginal peoples, being regularly portrayed in the media as lacking in agency has real consequences. Self-governance and self-determination are goals for many Aboriginal communities, but other Canadians may view these aspirations in terms of the threat they pose to their lifestyle and standard of living. If Aboriginal peoples are constructed in news reports as unable to exercise control over their own lives, the public is even less likely to show support for transfer of power or resources.

Credit: Union of BC Indian Chiefs

In other words, your news story may unwittingly become an instrument to preserve the status quo in Canada, where Aboriginal peoples have little control over their own affairs.

How can you change that? By being conscious about race and culture when you frame your story.

Your research may uncover a wide variety of non-Aboriginal people with opinions about Aboriginal issues. Academics and experts, politicians and bureaucrats. Or people hired by First Nations to speak for them: band managers or nurses or economic development officers. In some stories, you’ll find non-Aboriginal people impacted by Aboriginal actions: neighbours, competitors, supporters.

Maybe these are all valid perspectives, but make sure you include Aboriginal people in a substantive way in a story about Aboriginal peoples.

Make sure you include Aboriginal people in a substantive way in a story about Aboriginal peoples.

The reporter’s tendency toward framing a story through non-Aboriginal eyes is, perhaps, understandable. Non-Aboriginal professionals may be more “accessible” to media than Aboriginal people because they’re willing to play the media game. And academics, experts and politicians often express their opinions in clear and concise soundbytes.

But, is it necessary to build your story around that non-Aboriginal person, or are you favouring that perspective because that person is easily available to you, and delivers their message in a manner that you or your audience is more comfortable with?