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Covering the Crisis: Can Mainstream Media Attention Help Attawapiskat Long-Term?

Not long ago, few had even heard of Attawapiskat. It's a remote First Nation community that has gone from relative obscurity to being the center of a media storm.

By now, most Canadians have seen images of a child's face covered in a rash caused from unclean water, or the makeshift tent that's home to a family of six. They’ve watched the Red Cross and Canadian and provincial authorities pour in, and seen Chief Theresa Spence on television news.

Located on the James Bay coast in northern Ontario, Attawapiskat has become the new poster child for all that is wrong in First Nation communities—chronic housing shortages, poverty and unsanitary living conditions.

Media coverage of the crisis in Attawapiskat started as a small handful of stories, but snowballed until the week of November 28, when CBC, CTV and Global Television all broadcast stories directly from the troubled community.

However, already some are questioning why it took two months for Canadian media to take notice, even after the community declared a state of emergency. Moreover, as CBC News noted earlier this month, the ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) has known about the conditions for quite some time. Moreover, deplorable conditions on aboriginal reserves have been well documented for decades, as television journalist Peter Mansbridge noted when he interviewed Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo on the CBC News program One on One recently.

“I’ve been in this business for over 40 years,” he said during the broadcast. “One of the first stories I covered was a community like that. But this was in Manitoba.”

So why is it being covered as if it were a sudden disaster?

One of those questioning how media responded is Duncan McCue, creator of an online guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities (RIIC), based out of the University of British Columbia School of Journalism.

“It took an MP with a camera, who went on to self-publish an article to get anybody's attention,” he said. “Even then, mainstream media didn't listen."

McCue was referring to the now-famous November 21 article and video ("What if They Declared an Emergency and No One Came?") published on Huffington Post by Charlie Angus, the Member of Parliament for Timmins–James Bay, which is what sparked the media frenzy.

But at the same time that it brought much-needed attention to the issue, Angus’s column also set the tone for how the crisis has been covered, McCue said.

“Someone made an interesting comment on the RIIC Twitter page that there is an awful lot of 'OMG' going on in the reporting,” he said, adding that journalists are focusing only on the atrocious living conditions described by the media. “There has been less of a focus on some of the systemic problems that have led to that and some of the context that is necessary.”

Kevin Carter is originally from the Hollow Water First Nation in Manitoba. Now living in Saskatchewan, he has been following the story through mainstream media television, newspapers and a few small aggregated news sites. He said he’s disappointed in what he has seen so far.

“Right now [the coverage] is just about shaming Harper and the Canadian government,” he said. "There are some very real housing issues here, but this is still just the flavor of the month. Everybody will get kinda tired of it after a while, and then it will go away.”

As the coverage blossomed in early December, Carter tweeted, 'Love the media and twitter outrage on #Attawapiskat but this will pass like it has before.' “

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McCue agreed.

“We've seen this kind of thing in Kashechewan and Pikangikum [Ontario First Nations], where all of a sudden they are besieged by TV cameras for a little while, and then it goes away,” he said.

Janice Neil, a professor at Ryerson University in the School of Journalism, noted that shock and outrage alone weren't enough to drive this story. It took Red Cross involvement to set off additional alarm bells.

“I think the fact that the Red Cross responded and has gone in certainly added a new twist,” Neil said. “The Red Cross has a lot of credibility. It shows that the crisis they are responding to is legitimate.”

She and other Canadians, from Angus to the Registered Nurse’s Association of Ontario, expressed shame and embarrassment over what had been taking place in Attawapiskat while Canada looked the other way.

Leo Friday is Deputy Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, which represents Attawapiskat and six other First Nations in the James Bay region. He couldn't be happier that all of Canada is watching.

“People need to know what is going on in the remote communities,” he said. “And the reason it is on air is because of the support from other people.”

Friday says the community pushed hard to let the media know what was going on. Government officials “don't want to listen to people crying,” he said. “And they won't listen until the whole world hears about what is happening.”

McCue sees Attawapiskat’s situation as just one example of how the media tends to cover aboriginal issues. It begs the question of whether mainstream media is adequately and consistently covering aboriginal issues rather than employing a boom-and-bust approach—running to cover stories of conflict, corruption, trauma and the like, he said.

Friday would like to take more politicians to other First Nations in his region, including Kashechewan and Fort Albany. Both of those communities are facing similar problems with housing and poverty. And the story seems to have taken on a life of its own, with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples now taking Canada to task for its treatment of the country's aboriginals.

Neil said that while it's great to see everyone rushing to Attawapiskat, it's unfortunate that nobody came up with the idea to go look at the community before. But she added that geography and a simple lack of knowledge also stood in the way of earlier mainstream media coverage.

“It is certainly a huge problem to give coverage of Native communities and remote communities across the country,” Neil said. “It is geographically very far, and off the radar of where most journalists live—where most of the population in this country live. I also think it is very difficult to get an urbanized population to comprehend many aboriginal issues.”

McCue believes that practical reasons are also behind why the story wasn't picked up sooner.

“There are very real cost issues in getting these reporters to these isolated communities and very real barriers reporters face in trying to get the real stories out of these communities,” he said.

“Let's be blunt: There are people making decisions in newsrooms who perhaps didn't think it was a newsworthy story, that it was just another native reserve with crappy housing, and what's new about that?” he said. “That kind of judgment call goes on everyday in newsrooms. I hope it’s different with Attawapiskat.”