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New Graduate Journalism Course Gets Student Reporters into Aboriginal Communities

All too often, aboriginals are portrayed in the media as victims, warriors or threats to the public order. Or, experts say, they are seen as exotic. The one thing that is generally not seen is who they actually are.

“There tends to be in society a perception that aboriginal people are really poor white people with brown skin—and they’re not,” said Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser to the Stó:l? Tribal Council. “There really are differences.”

To combat such misperceptions, award-winning journalist Duncan McCue has created a course, Reporting in Indigenous Communities, for the University of British Columbia (UBC) Graduate School of Journalism. The class aims to foster journalistic talent among aboriginal students and, its creator hopes, will improve news coverage of aboriginal peoples and build stronger relationships between them and media organizations in the province.

The course, an elective, will debut in January. McCue has also developed an online guide patterned after the course for reporters who are already covering aboriginal issues.

“Aboriginal issues are underrepresented in mainstream news, and mainstream news is not reflecting the whole reality of aboriginal life in Canada,” McCue said. “Journalists need to expand their understanding about aboriginal issues and take a more culturally sensitive approach to their news gathering.”

Barriers to this approach include a lack of basic knowledge of aboriginal history and government policy regarding aboriginal peoples, McCue said. Another obstacle is the discomfort many reporters feel when covering a story within an aboriginal community. They may even fear being accused of racism if they ask tough questions.

“There is a barrier between ‘them’ and the aboriginal community that makes it difficult to get access,” McCue said. “I believe this has little to do with race and everything to do with training.”

Thus, students will practice reporting in aboriginal communities throughout Vancouver’s Lower Mainland. Several aboriginal communities and organizations have endorsed the course and agreed to share their expertise and knowledge.

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The Stó:l? Tribal Council is one of those partners. Crey, the council’s liaison for the course, said he is relieved to see such a class being offered to the next generation of journalists.

“Many reporters I’ve worked with over the years make a tremendous effort to bridge the social and cultural divide between the larger society and aboriginal community, but even with that, they are met with a mixed success,” said Crey.

Such issues were on McCue’s mind as he designed the curriculum while on a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in California. Each student will be expected to complete a major multimedia news story from one of the communities. That work will then be published online.

“To really learn best practices about reporting in indigenous communities, it’s not enough to study history and theory, or read and watch good stories—you have to get your hands dirty and do so in a safe learning environment,” he said. “They’ll be expected to dig up enterprise stories, to hear and touch and feel what life is like in indigenous communities, and to understand that they’re accountable to those communities for their work.”

McCue wants to produce a crop of reporters with some understanding of aboriginal culture, history and contemporary issues who incorporate aboriginal protocols into their reporting practices. He also hopes the course will draw more aboriginals into journalism.

Crey said that mainstream media is slower to recruit aboriginal employees than other industries are. “If you look at newsrooms across Canada in print, TV or radio, you may find some people with aboriginal ancestry, but there are so few of them,” he said. “It’s discouraging.”

UBC’s is the only journalism school in Canada with a course devoted to aboriginal representation in journalism. It is part of the school’s ongoing effort to enhance diversity in the media.

“A bunch of 25-year-old white liberals in a journalism class…does not reflect the world,” said Peter Klein, the school’s acting director. “First Nations issues tend to be poorly reported in the U.S. and in Canada. There are preconceived notions and biases—and an exoticism to stories that is not reflective of the daily lives of aboriginal people.”