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Aboriginal Stereotypes & The Media
Transcript of Aboriginal Stereotypes & The Media
Historically, the Canadian news media have served to the purpose of the state by means of excessive displays of ethnocentrism and outright racism towards Aboriginals.
For example, in the 1860's, Victoria's British Colonist, routinely discredited Aboriginal people, using such terms as “rascally redskins” and “miserable fish-eating tribes”.
This particular paper even went so far as to consistently publishing unsigned racist letters advocating that Aboriginal people be “removed” from Victoria. This viewpoint was also echoed in their editorials.
The Function of Stereotyping
Stereotypes: A Traditional Definition coined by Walter Lippman - “stereotypes are (i) an ordering process, (ii) a short-cut, (iii) referring to the world, and (iv) expressing our values and beliefs. We will look at a few of these in greater detail.
Stereotyping & The News
Due to the nature of modern journalism and reporting, reporters and journalists are under pressure to process vast quantities of information rapidly.
They are responsible for fashioning stories about people, issues and events in a timely manner. As a result, many journalists invoke stereotypes as they make use of ready-made structure that they can hang their stories on.
This is almost unavoidable as the brief amount of time available for production of news texts requires the use of “certain formulas” .
The problem with this is that journalists do not derive their stereotypes based on actual contact with those people who are the object of them, but rather form their stereotypical ideas based on a wide variety of indirect sources.
This tendency leads to a problem of bias and subjective reporting.
While these methods may be useful to the journalists themselves, they work contrary to the interests of the people who are the object of them and to the general public who are exposed to the final product.
Aboriginal Stereotypes in the News
“The myth of the drunken Indian has been retired in favour of the legend of the crooked band council” - Stephen Hume
The effects of media on the socialization of individuals is more profound today than at any other period in history.
The media holds unprecedented power in creating and maintaining roles of people and groups that are often accepted in society.
The creation of these roles, whether it be through news, movies or television, has the potential to reaffirm racism through existing stereotypes or to create new roles.
A 2011 editorial in The Globe and Mail read that “it is a failure of Canada's imagination that its original inhabitants continue to suffer the most distorted stereotypes of any non-white group”.
This presentation will discuss the most common portrayals of Aboriginals in the mass media, placing an emphasis on those found in news publications, and will consider their potential consequences.
News media in the mid-18th c. acted largely in the interest of property owners who wished to get Aboriginal people 'out of the way' of further settlement and economic exploitation.
Q: Can you think of any recent conflicts that remind you of these historical objectives?
In the 19th c. traditional Aboriginal culture was often publicly discredited as inaccurate descriptions of traditional ceremonies served to confirm suspicions regarding the state of savagery existing in Western Canada.
However, Aboriginal people have always taken an interest in what was being written about them and often attempted to set the record straight.
Aboriginal leaders appealed directly to elected government officials, often expressing their “bitterness at being depicted in White newspapers as violent and unpredictable”
Although some progress has been made since these times, stereotypical portrayals of Aboriginals in the mass media are still very much a reality.
Stereotypes as an Ordering Process
: People use stereotypes to make sense of society through generalizations, patterns, and typifications.
The problems with this are that first, this assumes that there is an absolute deniable truth to the world. Second, being a social construction, those with the power (moral entrepreneurs) get to define the stereotype and impose their definition of reality.
Stereotypes as A Short Cut
: Short cuts are used as an easy way of representing a great deal of complex information. The problem here is that stereotypes can oversimplify, or falsely state the complexity of people.
Stereotypes as Expressing our Values
: Stereotypes are an effective way to invoke consensus about the way we think about a social group and imply that all members of society arrived at the same definition collectively. The problem with this is that since stereotypes only represent a particular definition of reality, it is important to look at who proposes the stereotype and who has the power to enforce it.
In general, stereotypes tend to represent those that do not belong or are outside society such as Aboriginal People.
In an article entitled “News Stereotypes of Aboriginal Peoples”, the writer opened by saying “An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news is if he or she was one of the 4D's: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead. In fact, if you added W for Warrior, you could make it a rule”.
We will look at a few of these stereotypes in greater detail.
Gaining significance during the 1990 'Oka Crisis', the 'Warrior' stereotype is a reoccurring theme in much of the news coverage concerning the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal self-government and rights to land.
News publications during the time of the 'Oka Crisis' frequently depicted khaki-clad First Nations people toting guns and challenging traditional Canadian Authority.
Many of these publications followed the existing paradigm concerning “violent and uncivilized Indians who represent a threat to 'progress' in Canada” by tailoring protests in ways that guarantee prominent headlines and lead stories.
Conflicts such as these involving marches, blockades and occupations, often receive disproportionate attention from news media because they're unusual, dramatic or involve conflict. These characteristics are what makes something “newsworthy”.
Be a Warrior
These stereotypical portrayals of the First Nations 'warrior' have been seen in the local news recently concerning the ongoing shale gas protests near Elsipogtog, NB.
First Nations people have been depicted as engaged in active conflict with the RCMP, wielding camouflage and molotov cocktails with RCMP cars ablaze in the background.
Although many people would say they are fulfilling the stereotype quite well, it is important to remember that these images do not speak for all Aboriginals.
Contemporary news stories continue to reproduce the mainstay of those old Western movies – the Indian Drums.
Although it may seem cliche, many broadcast news stories concerning Aboriginals start with Aboriginal drumming as a way to start a piece with a kick.
The problem is that those news reporters do not consider that there is meaning to those songs and leave it up to the audience to interpret. Sadly, many may react with “Oh, drums. The Indians must be on the warpath. What do they want this time?”
Beat Your Drum
A qualitative study of ninety news articles about Aboriginal issues that appeared in three Canadian newspapers – The Vancouver Sun, The Province and The Globe and Mail – from June 1 to September 30, 2002, built on previous work done by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP).
The work identified three damaging stereotypes of Aboriginal people perpetuated in all forms of public discourse: 1) Pathetic Victims, 2) Angry Warriors and 3) Noble Environmentalists.
Hardings research wanted to know if those stereotypes identified in 1996 still held true 8 years later.
He concluded that although those previously identified stereotypes still exist, the most prevalent emergent stereotype found in his research is one which casts doubt on the ability of Aboriginal people to successfully manage their own affairs (Harding, 2005, p. 312).
In recent years, Aboriginal people have been actively engaged in reclaiming their lives and, in doing so, have been seen as challenging the status quo which has generated a lot of negative news coverage.
These negative portrayals are said to stem from the significant victories Aboriginal people have won against federal and provincial governments with respect to Aboriginal title, land claims, hunting and fishing rights and compensation for residential school abuse.
Other emerging stereotypes that Harding identified in the articles included:
Aboriginal people as incompetent financial managers, as taking advantage of the system, as “dependent” and/or incapable of self-governance, as working within the “system”, and finally as living outside non-Aboriginal law and social norms.
Harding also noted that Aboriginal people and issues are often excluded from the media altogether. Even when they do make the news, the stories told are almost always of a negative nature, and are rarely positive or focusing on achievements.
In 2003 article entitled , '
Natives need freedom from both government and band council”,
journalist Susan Martinuk blames Aboriginal people for the effects of colonization and racism.
References such as “Native culture is a mess”, “miserable Native culture,” “Canada's Aboriginal's face a bleak future,” and “despair, poverty and hopelessness are norm” would not have been out of place in a mid-19th c. publication. This goes to show that the old style of thinking is indeed still alive and well.
These are just a few of the stereotypes that have been identified as present in contemporary news media. To cover them all in detail would easily fill the pages of a novel.
Taking the examples I have provided into consideration, we must now ask ourselves “Why does this happen”?
The “Pathetic Victim” Stereotype is shown here in an obviously framed image
from the Anti-Shale Gas protests near Elsipogtog, NB.
Why Does This Happen?
Stereotyping by Omission
: It has been shown that visible minorities and Aboriginal people are still proportionally under-represented in the mass media in Canada. This lack of stable media representation may lead to the undermining of the First Nations presence in Canada as they are typically only consistently present when they are involved in some sort of conflict.
Accordingly, “media stories about Aboriginal issues made up less than half of one percent of media coverage three years running in Ontario” (Canadian Newswire)
Lack of History and Context
: Of the most prevalent explanations for the unjust portrayal of Aboriginals in the Canadian Media is that “what is not said in a news report may have as great an influence on the production of meaning as what is said”
The withholding of history and context about complex issues limits the interpretative choices available to audiences, particularly those audience members who do not already posses or have access to more detailed information on those issues.
Emphasis on Negative Stories
: News reporting is often found to be guilty to omitting positive roles and focusing on negative ones. (Crawford, 1998, p.13)
Under the guise of merely reporting facts, news tends to create negative images of groups.
There are very few stories of Natives living crime-free, everyday lives, making progress in their communities or overcoming significant obstacles.
The omission on these positive stories leaves traditional images of Natives intact.
: An observation I made independently based on my exposure to news media is that it seems like there is a pre disposed need for the media to identify the race of the perpetrator of a crime, especially if he or she is Native.
It is as if reporters are trying to emphasize the fact that the perp is Native in order to maintain the traditional stereotypes.
Q: Do you believe it is the news media's intention to maintain the pre existing stereotypes by identifying the perpetrators race? If not, why do you think they do this?
It is true that first nations people feel they are viewed negatively by the larger society. This can have detrimental effects. (Globe and Mail)
Firstly, stereotypical representations of Aboriginals lends to the cultivation of negative associations between the general public and First Nations people which leads to racism.
These stereotypes may also lend to internalization of the roles portrayed in the media by those people who are subject to them, leading to 'self fulfilled prophecies'. This is especially true for youth who are highly influenced by the media.
An article by the Huffington Post entitled “Aboriginal Stereotypes Can Be Deadly” talks about how negative stereotypes of First Nations women has been shown to result in unfair treatment in pregnancy health care. They posit that when medical professionals see that a patient is of First Nation's, they are more likely to involve child protective services if they sense even the slightest problem. (Huffington Post)
Finally, these stereotypes are detrimental to and work against the ongoing struggle Canada's First Nations communities face concerning progress. Because the positive efforts to improve their communities and ways of life are often overlooked, they are becoming less of a priority it seems.
Without support, compassion and understanding by the general public, positive progress becomes much more difficult.
These consequences are just a few of the many that have been shown to exist.
Much work has been done concerning finding solutions for the problem we have just looked at.
Although we have made some progress in the name of eliminating these stereotypes from news media, we are far from the place we need to be.
According to an article in the Globe and Mail, “only through increased engagement and interaction between aboriginals and non-aboriginals will negative stereotypes be eroded”
A greater dialogue between aboriginals and non-aboriginals wont necessarily result in greater harmony – but will engender a deeper appreciation for they challenges they face, as well as the diverse contributions of their vibrant communities. (Globe and Mail)
It has also been recommended that journalists need to better educate themselves about the history of aboriginal affairs in order to avoid some of the misconceptions and framing that takes place.
Finally, post secondary education and training of journalists and other media disciplines need to educate their students about the sensitivity surrounding reporting on aboriginal affairs in order to avoid these stereotypes.