When movements arise out of oppression, it can be difficult not to attend protests to show support, especially within marginalized communities. But journalists are taught to remain emotionally removed in their storytelling and journalism schools often teach students to avoid participating in protests. Meanwhile, Indigenous communities have spent decades defending their land, water, and human rights, and have been misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. As journalism evolves to improve coverage of Indigenous issues, can journalists show support for the communities they report on without sacrificing objectivity?
At CBC, the preferred word is “impartial,” says Jack Nagler, CBC/Radio-Canada’s English Services Ombudsperson. The word means that public broadcast works to include a variety of voices in the newsroom to pitch, report, and find sources for stories. By having employees of various ages, ethnicities, genders, and socio-economic statuses, CBC hopes to move away from the implication that there is always one objective truth and address that the truth can be nuanced depending on different perspectives.
However, Nagler says CBC asks its journalists to not make overt declarations of their opinions “on matters of public controversy.” He also says, “we have to think about what we do and say on social media, because when we express our opinions in public, it compromises the integrity of our coverage, and our balance of our coverage in the eyes of the public.” Readers can draw conclusions about a journalist’s story based on their actions outside of work, Nagler says, whether that’s putting an election sign on their lawn, signing a petition, or marching in a rally.
But having strong opinions is about challenging the idea of neutrality in a white, patriarchal, settler state, according to Sheila Sampath, editorial and art director of Shameless magazine. She believes that turning a blind eye to certain causes is also a political statement itself and that ignorance is a form of complacency. While journalists might not be able to participate in protests, they can still use their work to inform the public of systematic oppression in various communities.
Protests are about causing disruption in a system of oppression. They are about making certain issues visible to people who have the privilege of ignoring those causes in their daily lives. “…It’s about making the invisible visible,” Sampath says. But journalism serves a similar purpose. An ally doesn’t always have to attend protests if their privilege or platform can be used to support the movement in a different way. Sampath’s activism is in the form of media making, art creation, education, and through facilitation. “I don’t think that you have to be on the street to show solidarity to something,” she says. An ally is someone that benefits from certain societal privileges who is willing to put their own comfortability on the line in support of those who do not benefit from the same privileges. That means supporting an underprivileged community in a way that is needed for that movement, when asked, according to Sampath.
A major sacrifice a journalist makes is forfeiting their right to express their opinion, Nagler says. “But that’s offset by the unbelievable platform you have to make journalistic choices that highlight issues and bring out certain perspectives and allow voices to be heard that shake the public discourse. And that’s a huge role to play on an issue.”
Kathleen Martens, a reporter for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) who was at the pipeline protests on Wet’suwet’en Nation territory in January, felt that there were some blurred lines between camp workers who also identified as media. Martens was concerned that the information being shared by the self-identified press pushed the agenda of the camp and caused rifts in the reporting of the protest, ultimately confusing the public. “Our loyalty as journalists is to the audience,” she says, “not a particular group that may be protesting, for example.”
“I take journalism maybe too seriously, and I’m concerned about the erosion of trust in it,” Martens says. “…I think we do a very difficult job under extreme circumstances.” She feels as though transparency is jeopardized when the lines blur between reporter and activist, suggesting it borderlines public relations.
Sampath thinks it is helpful for journalists to disclose any biases they may have when covering an issue, but she is also aware that the burden of disclosure often rests on marginalized voices. She has seen Black writers disclose their race when writing about Black communities, she has seen women disclose their gender when covering sexual assault, but she has not seen a white man disclose how he benefits from a colonial and patriarchal system at the top of an article because his experience is the societal default.
Sampath says that an effective way to be an ally is to step back and create spaces for people in marginalized communities to narrate their own stories. Journalistic allyship requires an understanding that different cultures have different values and traditions that need to be taken into account when reporting. That includes being aware of one’s own position in the world and challenging Western ideals that are taken for granted. For example, the Indigenous people defending Wet’suwet’en Nation were referred to as protestors in the media, but hereditary chief Na’Moks John Risdale says they are land defenders. He says the word ‘protest’ is criminalizing, while ‘land defender’ carries a more noble implication.
One of the biggest ways in which journalists can support Indigenous nations is by taking the time to learn the history and culture of each community they report on. The media reported several misconceptions during the pipeline protests on Wet’suwet’en Nation territory in January, according to hereditary chief Na’Moks of the Tsayu clan. His first concern was with how many reports addressed the nation as “Wet’suwet’en First Nation” instead of the correct “Wet’suwet’en Nation.” The former is a small community of about 100 people within the territory, the latter is the 22,000 sq. km of land in its entirety. Blunders like this can be avoided when reporters do their homework before working in Indigenous nations. The Wet’suwet’en Nation website alone has information about its governance, language, social structure, and more.
In order to have a proper understanding of the issues they report on, journalists must spend time building trust and relationships within the Indigenous communities they report on. This means meeting people for coffee more than just once and getting to know each other. Maintaining those relationships once the reporting is done is equally as important. “You don’t really hold land on what you’re talking about until you stand on it, breathe the air, drink the water, meet the people,” Na’Moks says.