CBC reporter tells students: media are failing in indigenous coverage

CBC reporter Jody Porter says she’s not sure Canadian newsrooms are telling stories from indigenous communities the way they need to be. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

She says the “right” journalist to tell these stories must devote more time to the issue and push back against editors who don’t see their merit.

Jody Porter (Photo: Cait Martin Newnham/Ryersonian Staff).

Jody Porter speaking to Ryerson students last week. (Cait Martin Newnham / Ryersonian Staff)

She spoke at the Ryerson school of journalism last week about language and activism — a part of a series on journalism and indigenous communities. Her talk, “Indigenous Issues and the Mainstream Media: can the truth be reconciled?” laid out the implications of careless coverage of indigenous issues.

Porter, who specializes in social justice reporting in northwestern Ontario, has devoted much of her work to telling the stories of indigenous people and their struggle to have their stories told in mainstream media.

“As journalists, we get to be in the media every day. For many people who are part of indigenous communities they have one access point to have their story told … that’s their one shot,” Porter told The Ryersonian. “(Journalists) are their vehicle and what is the most important thing that happens out of that interaction is that the person maintains their dignity in the telling of their story.”

While Porter did discuss language — such as avoiding the use of “aboriginal” or “indian,” unless unavoidable in government acts and laws — she committed a lot of her time offering thoughtful ways of approaching indigenous experiences and issues.

“Imagine thinking you could cover Parliament Hill without knowing the Constitution or what any of the political parties stood for. Don’t imagine you can cover indigenous issues without an understanding of the fundamental relationship,” Porter said.

She pointed to the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) executive summary as a helpful resource for those who are struggling with doing justice to stories about indigenous issues.

The summary, constituted by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, is a call to action that deals with the role of media in reconciliation of First Nations coverage. It is intended to be the first reference point in the discussion of its six-year examination into Canada’s residential school system. The commission shares findings and stories from those who have personal experiences with the system.

It spells out four components for reconciliation: awareness of past, acknowledgement of the harm inflicted, atonement for causes and assessment and actions to change behaviour.

Porter is part of an Anishinaabe family through marriage, but she says she would “hate for people to think that (she is) claiming any kind of indigenous identity.”

She says that it’s important to acknowledge how little knowledge she has of the day-to-day life of First Nations. When she goes into communities, she says it’s crucial to not have any assumptions.

“What you go in with is what you go out with. To go in with complete openness because we have all this baggage as privileged Canadians,” Porter said.

Porter also stressed the importance of reporters devoting time and fight to save the dignity of those the stories are about.

“The first story you do isn’t going to change legislation and be a barnburner. But it’s going to be that starting point.”

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