Five questions for Duncan McCue

University of British Columbia graduate school j-prof Duncan McCue is spearheading the school's brand new, one-of-a-kind journalism course, "Reporting in Indigenous Communities". Developed in partnership with several B.C. aboriginal communities, the course is designed to elevate Canada's not-so-great coverage of aboriginal issues.

University of British Columbia graduate school j-prof Duncan McCue is spearheading the school's brand new, one-of-a-kind journalism course, "Reporting in Indigenous Communities". Developed in partnership with several B.C. aboriginal communities, the course is designed to elevate Canada's not-so-great coverage of aboriginal issues. We caught up with the award-winning CBC journalist and Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation member, to talk about the course, what's with all the ignorance, plus common pitfalls for journalists reporting on aboriginal communities and issues.

J-Source: Tell me a little bit more about the course, how it came to be, and why it’s important Canada has a course like this.

Duncan McCue: The long answer is this: I was over at a conference in Australia last year for UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, where a number of broadcasters, journalists and educators were getting together to talk about indigenous people in the media. I learned many things there, but one of the things that astonished me was that there were at least four journalism schools that were doing courses on media representation of aboriginal people in Australia, hands-on working with aboriginal people, and there was also one course in the United States as well. And so, it was something that had been percolating in the back of my mind for quite some time because I’d been an adjunct at UBC for a number of years now, but when I came back from UNESCO I was sure it was something we needed – if it was happening elsewhere in the world, then it was something we needed to do in Canada because there are, as far as I know, no journalism programs offered like this at journalism schools in Canada.

As far as what the course is: It will be a full-term, intensive study of aboriginal people in the media. What we’re doing is we’re taking our journalism students – it’s a graduate, two-year program – and saying we’ll focus on indigenous communities in the Lower Mainland. It’s a little bit of history and culture; they’ll learn some of the basics that maybe they didn’t pick up in their high school education. But it’s a lot of working hands-on with aboriginal people and students will be expected to bring back, at the end of the term, a major multi-media project focusing on one issue – we haven’t settled on the issue yet, but it will be something like health or education.

J-Source: When the program was announced you said that far too often reporting reinforces negative or inaccurate stereotypes. Can you elaborate on this: What are some of the pitfalls journalists — not just student journalists, but professional working journalists — fall into when they’re going to report on aboriginal issues, or in aboriginal communities?

DM: There are two main things. One, is that just in general aboriginal people are underrepresented in the mainstream media. It’s not so much a sin of commission, as it is a sin of omission. It’s just unfortunately aboriginal people are often off the radar when it comes to mainstream media.

When we do report on mainstream media, there’s lots of good work going on out there, but unfortunately I see stereotypes that continue. It’s the kinds of stories we choose. It’s not that we are reporting improper facts; that’s rarely the case. You see the same types of stereotypes pop up over and over again: Native as victim, for example, or Native as warrior. Those are two very common ones. As aboriginal people or First Nations are taking more and more control of their own governance, you see more and more complex stereotypes starting to emerge: Native as incompetent manager, that kind of thing. In general, the focus of the stories that we choose and our audiences are taking in is that Native people are problem people; that they have nothing but problems facing them – whether it’s funding, or complaints about housing, water, you name it. All our audiences see are the problems affecting Native people. Rarely do they see aboriginal people being part of the solution to those problems.

J-Source: You also mentioned that audience will benefit once these types of stereotypes are eradicated, and aboriginals are better and more represented in the media. What types of stories do you think should be told that aren’t being told. You mentioned a lot of the stories are negative — aboriginal people as problems — but there is the fact too that there are a lot of issues that aren’t even people reported when it comes to aboriginal people, or even celebratory stories.

DM: The newsroom that I work in and what I look at when I look at other media as well, I actually think there are a lot of positive stories out there. Newsrooms are very aware that we get criticized for being negative all the time: bad news, bad news all the time. There are a lot of positive stories out there; they often get buried. Here’s the end of our newscast: the nice, happy, fluffy little story that happens to be about Native people today, or it’s in the life section of the paper. The ones that are on the front pages are the ones that grab everyone’s attention. We could give more profile, I suppose, to some of the positive stories that see.

But also: I would like to see a more detailed investigation, for lack of a better word, into why some of these problems exist. At the moment, that’s not really happening. There’s very little looking at the details of financial accountability, for example, in aboriginal communities, looking at the water issue and why it’s been so endemic for so long.

One of the chiefs that I talked to that’s supporting our course said that she finds it easier to deal with mainstream media than to deal with aboriginal media because she gets harder questions from them – aboriginal media. They’re more familiar with the issues and they’re demanding accountability. What that suggests to me is a lot of mainstream media reporters because they’re not familiar with the issues aren’t pushing as hard as we need to be pushing when it comes to accountability questions.

Also for some non-Native reporters, there’s some discomfort there, in terms of pushing on some of these historical issues. They’re concerned that when they ask tough questions of chiefs, for example, they may be accused of being racist, or having a bias. I urge my students to know your background; know your facts. Be confident when you’re pushing someone, irregardless of whether they’re aboriginal or non-aboriginal.

J-Source: Why do you think this lack of knowledge when it comes to aboriginal culture and history exists?

DM: Part of it is our primary and secondary school and education. It’s not up to snuff when it comes to teaching the basics of aboriginal reality in this country. There’s no question about that. Part of it is simply cultural amnesia. Canadians can feel comfortable forgetting the situation that aboriginal people are in. In a lot of cases it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind – for all Canadians. Reporters are no different. I don’t see any particular bias in a newsroom that I don’t see anywhere else amongst Canadians. There are lots of folks in newsrooms that have romantic images of aboriginal people, and very positive images, but they are very romantic. This is why we continue to see chiefs in regalia in photographs on our front pages, rather than chiefs running through airports with Blackberries on their ears, which is probably a more accurate depiction of a chief these days. Those are a couple of things: the education we had growing up is lacking, and, like I say, for some Canadians it’s just easier not to know about the troubles and the history of Canada as a country vis-à-vis aboriginal people are reporters are no different.

J-Source: It’s the first year of this program, but what’s your ultimate goal? What would you like to see happen?

DM: The students have responded really positively to the course. We’ve got 14 students in the course, so they seem to be pretty excited about it. I hope that they leave the course with a basic cultural literacy, that they understand the basics of aboriginal history. This isn’t an aboriginal history course, it’s a reporting course. I hope they have a basic cultural history. I hope that they’re able to understand some of the First Nation protocols and culture and work that into their reporting practice. That’s key. Aboriginal cultures and newsroom cultures clash in a lot of ways. Deadlines leap to my mind. Deadlines are not Indian Time. I hope that they’ll understand how to balance those two things and incorporate some of the aboriginal cultures that they learn about into their reporting practices. And, I hope that we cover the communities that we’re covering well and that we come back with a really bang-up multi-media project that shines some light on some underreported topics in First Nation communities in the Lower Mainland.