How Canadian journalism fails missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, and trans women
Gabby Petito’s case has received national spotlight in the United States, and deservedly so. It is important as a society to be aware of cases involving missing and murdered people.
However, her case has also received national spotlight in Canada, and this country has its own pressing issues with the news coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, and trans women (MMIWGTSTW).
Indigenous women account for only 2 per cent of Canada’s population but are overrepresented as victims of physical and sexual violence and murder. In fact, Indigenous women aged 25–44 are “five times more likely to experience a violent death than any other [group of] Canadian women,” wrote researcher and community organizer Kristen Gilchrist-Salles in her research paper. Indigenous women and girls also represent 50 per cent of all sex trafficking victims in Canada. On top of this, there is a lack of statistics for Indigenous two-spirit and trans women, but that is another issue.
Despite these harrowing statistics, MMIWGTSTW receive disproportionately low news coverage in Canada compared to missing or murdered white women in terms of the amount and ways in which the coverage is formulated.. This speaks to how Canadian journalism fails Indigenous people and why the industry must be decolonized.
Gilchrist’s 2010 study, “’Newsworthy’ victims?,” drew upon three cases each of missing and murdered Indigenous women and white women, and compared their coverage in Canadian news media.
In the sample of white women, they were referred to as victims 170 times on average, had 62 articles written on their cases on average, and the articles were an average of 713 words long.
Indigenous women were referred to as victims 27 times on average, had 18 articles written about their cases on average, and the articles were an average of 518 words long.
In addition, the articles that were written about Indigenous women tended to be hidden amongst advertisements and soft news.
The numbers for MMIWGTSTW are partly rooted in the searchlight phenomenon, where there is brief intensive coverage followed by a reporting void. This void exists because they are not newsworthy victims — they’re not white.
Dr. Yasmin Jiwani, a Communication Studies Professor at Concordia University, found in her 2008 study about gendered violence in Vancouver’s DTES that victims who were poor, sex workers, Indigenous, or some combination of the three were labeled by news media as ‘high-risk’ for experiencing violence.
This label implied that Indigenous women were experiencing violence because of their own ‘bad’ decisions, “rather than that they were put at risk by the social conditions and societal factors governing and shaping their lives,” wrote Dr. Jiwani in the study.
Conversely, Kwagu’ł scholar Dr. Sarah Hunt raises a point in an article she wrote for rabble, “Why are we so hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause, yet so comfortable naming all the ‘risk factors’ associated with the lives of Indigenous girls who have died? Why are we not looking more closely at the ‘risk factors’ that lead to violence in the lives of perpetrators?
According to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “negative sexist and racist representations of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are part of Canada’s colonial history.” Indigenous womanhood being conflated with sex work (which should not be taboo) creates a harmful stereotype, normalizing the physical and sexual violence against them.
In practice, this is what framing theory looks like: intentionally presenting Indigenous women as less newsworthy victims than white women in order to cause non-Indigenous readers to have a lack of empathy for them.
Calls to action
The first step to decolonizing Canadian journalism is following through with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action focusing on media and reconciliation. Calls to action 84-86 speak to the lack of Indigenous representation in the industry and its schools.
The specifics of this include, “ii. [i]ncreasing equitable access… to jobs, leadership positions, and professional development opportunities…” and, “iii. [providing] news coverage and online public information resources on issues of concern to Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians.”
CBC’s diversity and inclusion plan for 2015-18 aimed to address the lack of Indigenous peoples employed by the corporation by creating paid internships for Indigenous reporters at Radio-Canada and in television production (among other actions).
In 2018, Indigenous representation in the CBC workforce increased to 2.1 per cent, 2.3 per cent in 2019, and decreased to 2.2 per cent in 2020. The increase was minimal at best and there is still no CBC executive that identifies as Indigenous.
Indigenous peoples are underrepresented in an industry that is critical for their public perception. News media that reduces Indigenous peoples to a set of fixed attributes to define and frame them by is not ethical journalism.
Canadian journalists owe it to themselves, to the non-Indigenous Canadian public, and Indigenous peoples to provide MMIWGTSTW just news coverage due to the power they yield in shaping what people think.
Most importantly, however, coverage of Indigenous peoples should focus on the elements that make them human rather than solely victims. However, for issues such as MMIWGTSTW, the coverage that does occur must refrain from anti-Indigenous framing and must be given the same level of prioritization that white women receive in terms of the length of articles, its placement in a newspaper or website, and more.
Call to action 86 would help with this as it calls for Canadian journalism programs to incorporate mandatory education for all students about the country’s colonial past, present, and future. This could help create generations of journalists that would cover Indigenous with the same journalistic rigor and integrity white women are provided.
Decolonization in Canadian journalism begins with establishing Indigenous education frameworks in journalism schools and having proportionate representation in the workplace. It will be achieved when factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality do not result in disproportionate and skewed news coverage.
Feature graphic by James Fay