Context and Colonial Amnesia

A feature of contemporary journalistic writing is its tendency to fixate on the extreme socio-economic conditions of colonized peoples, while simultaneously exhibiting a general amnesia about colonial history and its connection to the current state of affairs.
Robert Harding

Pity the poor reporter, who has but two or three sentences at her disposal, to explain centuries of colonialism, or the complicated political-legal jurisdiction governing Indians. “Wow. Big residential school lawsuit. Get on this!” (And, make sure it doesn’t run a second over a minute fifteen.) “Hey. What’s this presser on this new land claims tribunal thing?” (Try explaining THAT in 450 words.)

Aboriginal issues aren’t unique in this regard. Over and over, our producers and editors send us out to tackle complicated news issues, and give us precious little space to tell the back story.


But, putting aside debate over the shrinking attention spans of news consumers, the lack of context in news coverage of Aboriginal issues is one of the most recurring criticisms of our work — and it may actually be causing a great deal of harm. Here’s why.

Without the “back story,” our audiences are hampered in their ability to interpret and make sense of news events and images, especially those who have limited access to a broad source of information about Aboriginal people. Thus, a de-contextualized Indian becomes a “problem” Indian: the incompetent manager of a child welfare agency, the homeless drunk on the city street, the needy victim of residential school sexual abuse.

How can you “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” if a reporter never offers you the opportunity to put those moccasins on? It’s easier to understand why audience members have little sympathy or empathy for Aboriginal peoples, when the nuances of racism or the history of colonialism are left unexplained. One news story at a time, we further entrench the communication gap between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada.


How do you get context into your story? “Life is a game of inches,” growled Al Pacino in his role as a football coach in Any Given Sunday. Like a runningback fighting for that inch on the gridiron, you need to do battle with your editors for those precious extra words or seconds/minutes. Claw. With. Your. Fingernails. For. That. Inch.

Maybe your publication or program really really doesn’t have more space for you to squeeze that context into your story. If so, it’s up to you to GET CREATIVE in how you present that background material. Strategize how you pitch it to your boss.

Here’s a few tips — on how you might fit that all-important context in.


Your colleagues in the Graphics Department are your friends, when it comes to reporting on First Nation issues. A historical timeline, a visual portrayal of a complex piece of legislation, a summary of a legal case, an explainer on cultural traditions — all of these are perfect examples of how you can use images and graphics to compliment your story, and put it in context.

The keys to helping them make good graphics:

  • be on the lookout, while you’re doing your research, for material that cries out for a graphic presentation, and
  • bring the graphics folks into the loop early in your newsgathering process.


Sometimes, our news stories hone in on the dramatic, which can inadvertently misrepresent a situation. Shorter, sidebar stories help balance the presentation of an issue, without clogging up the body of the main story.


For example, for every elementary school dropout sniffing glue in a community, there’s likely another kid doing well in school, who says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”

Alternatively, a sidebar talk with a professor or an expert can offer historical context to the main players.

Web Extras

In your race to get the story to air, you come across all kinds of resources and material that help you put an issue in context. Court decisions, historical essays, statistical reports. While you can’t include all that information in the body of your story, direct your audience to your website, where you can share links, scanned documents, and such. That allows them to do their own research and learning, if they’re so inclined.

The “2-for-1” Deal!

Argue this story DEMANDS context, and the best way to do that is to assign two or more different reporters to a news event: one reporter to cover the “news of the day,” others who can focus on history and background.

If your assignment editor balks at tying up his or her precious resources in one subject, try pitching the 1-2 reporter tag-team as a package treatment. Further supplemented with graphics — heck, you could even promote it as an “in-depth” feature!