Calling out the mainstream media on Native issues

Dominique Jarry-Shore, a journalism student in Concordia University’s one-year graduate diploma program, spent a week last summer working at Eastern Door–a weekly newspaper for Mohawk First Nation reserve of Kahnawake.

It was “the best learning experience”, says the 33-year-old former social worker, who called the newsroom a fun, “super friendly and open environment”. She worked with four or five native reporters, as well as 33-year-old editor, Steve Bonspiel.

But it was also an eye-opening venture for Jarry-Shore, who says she learned a thing or two about the mainstream media’s relationship with native communities–and she didn’t like it one bit.

“These reporters have so many resources compared to the Eastern Door,” said Jarry-Shore recently, on the phone from Montreal. “I think they’re exploiting the  editor by calling him up and sort of taking his time and using him instead getting to know the community themselves, which is really not such a hard thing to do because the people are really open.”

Jarry-Shore, who has freelanced for The Globe and Mail, The Gazette and This Magazine, also notes that much of the coverage of native issues is negative.

“They’re the same kind of stories in mainstream media,” she said. “I think it would be really important for those reporters to make more of an effort and not just to go when there’s just a huge tragedy or drug bust, or something like that.”

Still, her time at the Eastern Door has served her well: she made “valuable contacts”, picked up some story ideas, and experienced a different community.

“It’s something that could set me apart from other journalists,” she said.

Below is a first-person column Jarry-Shore wrote for J-source about her time at the Eastern Door. When she graduates in April, she hopes to travel to Chiapas, Mexico, to study indigenous rights.

Dominique Jarry-Shore

Dominique Jarry-ShoreIn the summer of 2008 I was an intern for a week in the newsroom of the Eastern Door, the weekly newspaper of the Mohawk First Nation reserve of Kahnawake. The experience was unequivocally great; I learned a lot in a fun and relaxed atmosphere, and was exposed to a slice of Mohawk First Nation life. Steve Bonspiel, the 33-year-old editor and co-publisher of the paper, was a wonderful supervisor with a laidback attitude and a very un-politically correct sense of humour. But the experience also got me thinking about how little we know about what goes on in Kahnawake, and gave me a taste of the mainstream media’s relationship with the community.

I quickly realized Kahnawake was a kind of dead zone for the Montreal media. On my first day the paper’s co-publisher, Tracey Deer, gave me an interesting assignment that illustrated the Montreal media’s lack of presence on the reserve. I was to write about the journalists who were in town reporting on a memorial walk for a teenager who had died. The walk was taking place to bring attention to the death of Tylor Glasgow, the 15-year-old boy who had been hit by a speeding car the week before. At the time of the accident, the car was being driven by a member of the Kahnawake community who sped onto the reserve to get away from an off-reserve police car. The cars had been involved in a high-speed police chase.

“When the media come to Kahnawake, that’s a story in itself,” I was told by Deer. My job was to interview the journalists and get some photos of the event. It was meta-journalism in practice.

Although it’s always a little nerve-wracking to interview journalists, I managed to speak to reporters from La Presse, CBC Radio and Television, the Gazette, and Global. I asked them why they were there that day, how they heard about the story, and what they thought of coverage of Native issues in their media.

Martin Croteau of La Presse was the most candid, explaining that his paper didn’t even know about Tylor Glasgow’s death the week before until a front-page story was published that morning. According to Croteau, La Presse’s newsroom had taken notice and decided to send a reporter to cover the event. Croteau was the only representative of the French media at the march. “It’s true that we don’t always show the problems that happen on the reserve… but when a 15-year-old dies because a car doesn’t stop [for police] – that’s important,” he told me.

Jeff Heinrich, who covers the “diversity” beat for the Gazette, was the author of the Gazette article and was present at the march as well. Heinrich and Bonspiel seemed to know each other well; Heinrich even used the Eastern Door’s newsroom afterward to file his story. When I asked Heinrich about his paper’s coverage of the story, he explained that Native issues come under the umbrella of cultural communities included in his “diversity” beat. As for the other media present, Salimah Shivji of CBC radio did a live hit from the march, and CBC television reporter Andrew Chang and a Global video-journalist both got footage and interviews, presumably for that evening’s newscast.

After the memorial walk that day, Kahnawake was left grappling with the death of a young member of its community and the Eastern Door continued to dig for more details about the circumstances of the accident. It was felt the Roussillon police force (which was the police force of the officer who was involved in the car chase) was covering up the incident and that the officer may have left the scene of the accident. One of my tasks was to call the public security minister to find out if there would be an inquiry. I left many messages before word came at the end of the week from Taylor’s mother that, yes, there would be an inquiry.

Later in the week, Bonspiel was approached by an investigative reporter from a large Montreal newspaper who wanted help making contacts with people in the Kahnawake community involved in the tobacco industry. In the middle of a busy day and as we approached our Thursday night production deadline, Bonspiel spent about 20 minutes on the phone with the reporter discussing the issue of tobacco smuggling and production in the community, and said he would help the reporter speak to people for his story.

When he got off the phone I asked Bonspiel if he was going to charge for his services, but he smiled and said no. My first reaction was,”Hey, that’s not fair.” Bonspiel works very hard, with a fraction of the resources of the newspaper in question, to put out a community paper with a readership of 2,500. And he still finds the time to take reporters on a tour of the community and hook them up with sources for their stories.

In a recent conversation about the issue Bonspiel said: “The way I see it, whatever we share with the mainstream media is a positive thing because it will spur them to report on what’s going on in Kahnwake and with Native issues.”

But shouldn’t the mainstream media be making an effort to find their own sources and getting to know the community? Bonspiel says he encourages reporters to come to Kahnawake, go to a restaurant, have a meal and talk to some of the people who live here. “If you don’t take the initiative, how will you know?” he asks. But the reality is that mainstream media tend to cover the controversial stories coming out of the reserve: drug busts or tragedies like the death of Taylor Glasgow. The rest of the time they rarely visit the reserve and largely ignore a community that is right next door to Montreal. 
The reason is likely an unwritten rule about the quota of Native stories that can be covered in the mainstream media. Bonspiel was a freelancer for the Gazette before buying the Eastern Door last year. He remembers pitching a story to an editor at the Gazette and being told that it would be a month before the story could be published because they had just published another story written by Bonspiel about something else related to Natives. “They think even once a week is too much,” Bonspiel said. “I think there should be a whole page every day devoted to Native issues… Make it well-balanced and keep it in the paper.” 

Despite the fact that Kahnawake is 20 minutes from downtown Montreal, many Montrealers have never been to the reserve. Before doing my internship and after close to 30 years living in Montreal, I myself had never been to Kahnawake and knew little of the community. But even a week was an eye-opening experience. I began to get an inkling of the culture of the community and issues it faces. If I can do it, so can Montreal journalists. But Bonspiel’s hand-holding of reporters who come calling may just be perpetuating their passivity.

Bonspiel gets approached on average once every two weeks by reporters from the local and national media. He remains convinced that sharing information and sources can only be a good thing, though he acknowledges the mainstream media probably aren’t as forthcoming with him. He says that having stories in the mainstream media can help bring attention and put pressure on people in power and cites the recent example in which the Sureté du Quebec lost one of its guns on the Kanehsatake reserve. In that case Bonspiel called an editor he knows at the Journal de Montreal to give him the scoop. Because Kanehsatake doesn’t have a police force at the moment, Bonspiel thought it would be important for the public to know the situation on a reserve being protected by the SQ.

The representation of Native people in the media has been studied and found to be lacking in many ways. But that’s no excuse to let the mainstream media off the hook so easily. Although I see Bonspiel’s point in that he wants stories about his community – and not just negative stories – to make it to mainstream media, I can’t help but feel he’s being used by the big media outlets who are taking advantage of his generosity. It might be time to say “no more Mr. Nice Guy” and let them fend for themselves. The media should do more legwork and spend time in Kahnawake developing their own contacts. There’s nothing stopping them.