Maintaining Ignorance: The political economy of Ontario’s media

A former colleague once said to me, “the problem with our stories is they take too long to tell.”

We were struggling to get media coverage for the outcomes of the 18-month process that led to the creation of the Kelowna Accord.  Largely as a result of the media ignoring that story, Conservative politicians were able to claim that the accord had been written on the back of a napkin.  Once elected, the Harper government proceeded to kill the agreement.

As a new report makes clear, the length of our stories wasn’t the issue – it was the Indigenous subject matter and the fact that it was a positive story.

In the recently released study, Buried Voices: Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario, Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) look at 171 Ontario-based print and online news sources over the past 3 years to shine some useful light into yet another dark corner of Indigenous relations in our province.

What the study found is that the media generally doesn’t cover Indigenous news, but when it does, it mostly has to be bad news.

Between 2010 and 2013, those media generated 2,141,573 stories, of which 6,032 or 0.28%, centered on Indigenous people, culture or issues.

These numbers are clearly disproportionately small when compared to the more than 2% of Ontario’s population that is Indigenous.  More troubling is the failure to recognize the significance of the issues, in terms of Indigenous poverty, Ontario’s economic prospects in resource development, or the severity of ongoing social injustice and its repercussions for the future.

As the study points out: “Simply put, a lack of stories prevents news consumers from making informed opinions or from truly understanding Aboriginal people and issues.”

However, the choice not to cover the issues, according to the study, is only part of the problem. JHR also studied the topics on which media did bother to report.

Rather unsurprisingly, conflict drove much of the coverage, leading to an increase in stories printed from 0.15% in 2010-11 to 0.46% in 2012-13, with the Idle No More protest and Chief Spence’s hunger strike driving the way.  Of course, without the context that regular and ongoing coverage would provide, these events surprise journalists and readers alike, and lead to a failure to understand the roots of conflict or identify the pathways to solutions.

Buried Voices also notes that the media appetite for conflict reinforces protest as a way of getting attention or raising awareness, leading inevitably to more conflict.

In the end, people are left with the impression that protests are unjustified and the problems are intractable.

Even more troubling is that the negative tone of stories increased with increased coverage.

The study found a relative balance in tone in 2010-11, with 26% positive, 28% negative and 46% neutral stories.

The increase in the overall proportion of stories to 0.23% in 2011-12 was accompanied by an increase to the proportion of negative stories to 33%, while neutral stories fell to 43% and positive to 24%.

With the jump in coverage in the past year to 0.46% of all stories, those with a neutral tone fell to 40%, positive stories fell again to 20% and negative stories rose to a disturbing 39%.

JHR makes four recommendations to address the challenges identified in its report:

  • Expand journalism school curriculum to teach effective and ethical reporting on Indigenous issues;
  • Foster relationships with Indigenous peoples by spending time in those communities;
  • Train and hire more Indigenous journalists; and,
  • Expand the scope of coverage beyond momentary crises.

These are solid, practical recommendations.  And putting their own efforts behind these findings, JHR already has begun working with Indigenous peoples on a “Northern Ontario Initiative,” training Indigenous and non-indigenous journalists to cover such stories with greater context and sensitivity.

If one were to identify a flaw in the report however, it would be with regard to the depth of its analysis and scope of its recommendations.

In discussing the increasingly negative tone that coincides with increased coverage, the study does note that, “the majority of stories that portrayed Aboriginal people in negative light stemmed from editorials and opinion columns.”  Unfortunately, Buried Voices draws no conclusions nor makes any recommendations regarding this key observation.

That observation picks up from one in the 2011 book by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson, Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, which took a case-study approach to news stories from 1869 to the present in order to produce “the first book to examine the role of Canada’s newspapers in perpetuating the myth of Native inferiority.”  There, the interest of news media publishers and advertisers in an editorial policy that maintains their own economic advantage is laid bare.

In his seminal work, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky showed through quantitative analysis of media how public support is manufactured for U.S. foreign policy.  JHR have used that same quantitative technique to demonstrate how ignorance and antipathy is maintained concerning Indigenous rights in Ontario.

The story that remains untold, however, is how the economic interest of Ontario media in maintaining public ignorance of the facts drives these troubling statistics.

Daniel Wilson is an Indigenous rights advocate.

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