Voices unheard: The struggle for Indigenous representation in mainstream media
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Voices unheard: The struggle for Indigenous representation in mainstream media

Indigenous journalists share their personal journeys and the significant obstacles they've overcome working in mainstream media

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Through a series of insightful interviews with pioneering Indigenous journalists such as Duncan McCue, Melissa Ridgen, Karyn Pugliese, Rick Harp, Martha Troian, and John M. H. Kelly, this podcast sheds light on the myriad challenges Indigenous journalists face within the mainstream media landscape. From confronting stereotypes to battling for accurate portrayal of Indigenous communities, these journalists share their personal journeys and the significant obstacles they’ve overcome. Recorded on March 19, 2021, as part of a Masters of Journalism course at Carleton University, “Voices unheard” is a powerful exploration of the intersection between Indigenous identities and the media industry.

Listen to the episode (also available on YouTube)


Cold open

MusicFX: Impact
Robert J. BallantyneVO: I’m Robert J. Ballantyne. And this. Is Popjournalism. Canada’s media magazine.
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Duncan McCueSOT: I’m Duncan McCue on CBC Radio One and online at CBC.ca. You’re listening to Cross Country Checkup.
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Rick HarpSOT: Hello, I’m Rick Harp from Winnipeg, this is Media Indigena.
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Jesse BrownSOT: There is no more crucial beat in Canada right now than Indigenous issues and for the better part of the last decade, Karen Pugliese has set the agenda for coverage of those issues.
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Melissa RidgenSOT: Good afternoon, welcome to our show, I’m your host Melissa Ridgen. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, people pretending to be Indigenous to get jobs or grants or even just to get attention because it’s cool to be us.
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Robert J. BallantyneVO: That was this edition’s moment of disruption, a sound collage of recent media appearances featuring some of the guests who’ve been interviewed for this very special edition of Popjournalism.

In this edition, we take a close look at Indigenous media representation in Canada. This project was undertaken as part of a Masters of Journalism course at Carleton University.

Joining me as co-producer of this week’s show is my collaborator from Carleton, Kevin Philipupillai. Hi Kevin.
Kevin PhilipupillaiVO: Hello, thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Why don’t you start us off by introducing what this project is all about.
Kevin PhilipupillaiVO: Sure. We’ve interviewed notable Indigenous journalists from CBC and APTN, a news and entertainment network by and for Indigenous people. We’ve also spoken with independent and freelance reporters, and Indigenous scholars.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: We wanted to find out why they chose to engage with mainstream journalism, and what choices and challenges they have faced, working inside and outside of mainstream media outlets.

We should acknowledge upfront that our exploration here has some limitations. We only interviewed journalists who have worked at mainstream media outlets at some point in their careers. We did not approach journalists who work at a First Nation-based or community-based media outlet.

With that being said, let’s let our guests introduce themselves.
Melissa RidgenSOT: I’m Melissa Ridgen, I’m a host-producer with APTN National News. I’m based in Winnipeg
Rick HarpSOT: My name is Rick Harp. I’m the host-producer of the Media Indigena podcast.
Martha TroianSOT: My name is Martha Troian, and I am originally from Lac Seul First Nation, which is in northwestern Ontario. I also have ties from Wabauskang First Nation which is also up north. I am an independent investigative journalist and producer.
Duncan McCueSOT: Duncan McCue, Anishinaabeg and I am Ojibway from Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. [Speaks in Ojibway.] I’m wolf clan. I work for CBC.
John M. H. KellyI am John M. H. Kelly. Adjunct research professor and I’m with the department of journalism and communications. And I am Skidegate, Haida on the west coast.
Karyn PuglieseI’m Karyn Pugliese, I’m assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism. I worked a bit for CBC, CTV. I worked at APTN. And then, ichannel, VisionTV and went back to APTN. I’ve also written for the National Observer. I’ve occasionally published in The Globe and Mail.


Robert J. BallantyneVO: Karyn Pugliese, in addition to her current position at Ryerson, was also the Executive Director of News and Current Affairs at APTN. To start, I asked her if she thinks mainstream media outlets accurately represent Indigenous stories.
Karyn PuglieseSOT: The media tends to not show up when things are peaceful or when things are building up or during the point where these tensions are rising and trying to be solved peacefully or through negotiation. They tend to show up when there’s crisis. And so, they portray accurately some things. When a community’s in crisis, they do give an accurate vignette on that moment, but if that’s all you know about the community, is that for a moment it was in crisis, then you’re not getting a full picture of the humanity of the people who live in that community and that’s part of the problem.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: But even given the historic and ongoing failures of mainstream media outlets in covering Indigenous issues, Indigenous journalists are still forced to engage with these settler-colonial institutions.

Rick Harp from Media Indigena believes this is true not only for Indigenous journalists, but for all Indigenous people in Canada.

Media Indigena is a crowdfunded, independent weekly Indigenous current affairs podcast. And Rick has also worked at CBC.
Rick HarpSOT: Indigenous people don’t get a chance to opt-out of engaging the mainstream, but the opposite is very much true. Settlers can choose to ignore Indigenous stuff their whole lives except maybe a blockade that inconveniences them getting to Costco or something, but there’s a luxury there, there’s a privilege of just being ignorant. Indigenous people were coerced to be part of Canadian society, and as a result, I suppose you could argue some of us are quite bicultural in that way.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Given that Indigenous journalists have to engage with the mainstream, all the journalists I interviewed say they have faced many challenges as both storytellers and employees. Here is CBC journalist Duncan McCue.
Duncan McCueSOT: I’ve learned so many lessons along the way about how not to do things. When you are young and green and hungry, I was trying to make a career for myself, and so, accepted assignments and told stories in ways that I wouldn’t do now as a journalist with 20 years behind me. In my first couple of years as a journalist, I raced around to blockades, I kinda called it the blockade beat and it took me a couple of years of doing that to realize why are all the Indigenous stories that I’m telling always from protests and blockades. There’s so much more to Indigenous life in this country, but it doesn’t seem to get into the news. And at that point, I kinda consciously started to pull back from covering protests and blockades because there will always be TV cameras at protests and blockades, but that’s a very narrow vision of Indigenous life in this country.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Early in her career, Melissa Ridgen, now a host-producer with APTN National News, found herself being assigned stories simply based on being Métis.
Melissa RidgenSOT: When I was at the Calgary Sun, everyone knew Melissa was Metis. If there was a story that had anything to do with native people, Melissa was sent out to cover it ’cause she’s [Red River] Métis, right? Because I have any background knowledge of the Blackfoot, like, of course I don’t.


Robert J. BallantyneVO: Journalists who choose to report for Indigenous audiences, like those who watch APTN National News, can explore stories in greater depth.
SOT: When I’ve worked at Indigenous news outlets, we’d often take a lot of shortcuts. One of the examples I used is I can talk to another Indigenous person and say, Hey, do you remember way back when C-31 used to take status away from women and the MIB wasn’t on board on it, then a bunch of women formed NWAC and we got C-31. So, I’m a C-31 (02) and my son is actually a Macgyver (sic?) baby. So, he’s become a C-31 (02) through that. That conversation is a whole conversation that makes sense to another Indigenous person, but a non-Indigenous person has no idea what I was just talking about.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Melissa Ridgen says this is true even for the non-Indigenous audiences that tune in to APTN.
Melissa RidgenSOT: You know what you’re getting at APTN. You know that this is from an Indigenous perspective, it’s to an Indigenous audience and you’re not going to expect that I’m hand-holding your settler hand through the issues, right? If you’ve tuned in, I’ve kind of assumed that you’re at a different state than when I was on the local radio station trying to tell the same story. I would tell the story differently if it was like, Melissa, you’re a reporter speaking to a broad population of just Winnipeggers, or a small town or whatever. I would tell the story differently as a journalist than I would tell the story to APTN’s audience. If you are turning in, I think that you appreciate that I’m talking to this audience like that and you’re getting to listen.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: At non-Indigenous media outlets, more explanation is required to introduce many Indigenous issues to mostly settler audiences.

And another barrier to understanding, according to Rick Harp, is that settler media outlets and their audiences aren’t really that interested in Indigenous stories either.
Rick HarpSOT: You know, journalism’s all about hooks! And unfortunately that hook is, operationally speaking, what would interest a settler about this story affecting Indigenous interests? In some ways, it’s like trying to tell a story about, I don’t know, Latvia. Why would a Canadian (laughs) care about Latvia? I mean, unless they were born there. You would have to go, hmm, how much detail should I go into this. Of course, there will people who will submit that it’s not that foreign Rick Harp, calm down. But some days, I might as well be talking about what’s going on the red planet.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Karyn Pugliese, who has worked at APTN as well as at mainstream outlets, tells us more about how these conversations happen within a mainstream newsroom environment.
Karyn PuglieseSOT: I would have a hard time sometimes pitching stories that were Indigenous and getting people to understand them because the implicit bias that is in mainstream newsrooms still tends to be sort of a boomer male. It certainly was back then. So, you’ve got a boomer male editor who’s asking why would this story be of interest to our audience? And however he’s imagining that audience, he’s imagining them like people like himself, so he’s very interested in things that are happening in their own lives, to their children, to their neighbours. Not to something that’s happening to somebody else who they don’t think they’re ever going to meet or know about..


Robert J. BallantyneVO: Martha Troian is a freelance investigative reporter, and adjunct professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. Over the years, on occasion, she has encountered ignorance about Indigenous issues from mainstream editors. She developed ways of dealing with them.
Martha TroianSOT: There’s mainstream producers and senior producers out there that aren’t comfortable with you pushing back and they’re not used to having people speak up for their stories sometimes. Like sometimes I even have to push back on my edits because I just don’t agree with them. Or I also don’t agree that I should be teaching them the history of their own country. And so I will sometimes just place links if they’re commenting in a document and ask them to read something. Maybe I’ll place the TRC report in there. I just feel like it’s not my duty to have a 101 Indigenous class with an editor. I think that is their responsibility and like I said there’s a lot of literature out there for them to learn about the history.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Mainstream media has often under-estimated the ability of Indigenous storytellers to influence and even manipulate mainstream coverage.

When Karyn Pugliese was with APTN, she developed tactics to pull mainstream outlets along with her.
Karyn PuglieseSOT: APTN was always seen as this separate thing. Even when people were being kind about it, they would kind of look down on it. There were a few profiles that were done at the Globe and Mail that had titles like The Little Newsroom That Could or something like that. When I sort have been there for a few years, I felt like the rhythm was good and we were getting good stories, so I started to really manipulate, I guess, Twitter or encourage the manipulation of Twitter to get the attention of other journalists to what we were doing. We got actually to a point where I would tell my reporters, like, if you turn and look to the right, all the other reporters are saying what is that APTN reporter looking at? There’s something over there that we should be seeing. We started quite purposely digging into stories that we thought the mainstream media should be covering because we knew if we did them, they would follow our lead saying, APTN thinks this is important, we should probably be covering it, it’s probably important, so we did that with water, for example, we did that with child welfare for example, so in that way, we were not a part of the system, but we were pulling the system along with us.
Robert J. BallantyneSOT: And you were thinking of the system.
Karyn PuglieseSOT: I was totally thinking of the system. It went from, the minute I realized that we could do it, I said, this is how I’m gonna influence mainstream journalism. I’ll never have this type of influence on mainstream journalism even if I was working on it.
Robert J. BallantyneVO: Despite the ingenuity of journalists working within the mainstream system, there are many compromises made to remain there. Both personal and on the storytelling.

Rick Harp shares how he policed his own language when he was working at the CBC. For example, he held back on using the word “settler.”
Rick HarpSOT: I mean even to use that word “settler” is frankly (sighs) if I dropped that in the middle of a story meeting with my peers. I think, you know, if I didn’t get explicit eyerolls, I’d certainly expect some people to go, You know, I’m not sure that’s very helpful. Of course, I’ve never done that, because I knew (laughs), I knew what would happen. Anyway, that was my suspicion.

Thank yous

Robert J. BallantyneVO: Thanks to all the journalists who shared their time with us. One of the influences behind this project was a book co-authored by John M. H.  Kelly, a long-time journalist and now an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University.

The book, titled, We interrupt this program: Indigenous media tactics in Canadian culture, encourages Indigenous journalists to navigate through the system on a day-to-day basis, influencing it as best they can.


Robert J. BallantyneVO: You know, in many ways, Indigenous journalists are holding ground. Canada is still an unjust, colonial country. And, by extension, so is mainstream Canadian journalism. 

For Indigenous journalists, making incremental change is both a survival technique and a tactical way to challenge the system. 

But it comes at a personal cost to the journalist. However, as John M. H. Kelly insists, it’s important for Indigenous journalists to hold ground in mainstream newsrooms and institutions like Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. 

I asked John for further suggestions on how Indigenous journalists, like me, can challenge the system from the inside.
John M. H. KellySOT: Well, Robert, by being there. You challenge them by your very presence. Only you can report because you’ve been on the inside and are on the inside. Then you’re presenting to the rest of the world what we’re all about. I really think that we need to continue to infiltrate the system, so to speak, I’m saying that in a very positive way, actually. Because journalism is the voice, the eyes, and the ears of the people.


Robert J. BallantyneVO: This podcast was co-produced by Robert J. Ballantyne and Kevin Philipupillai. Audio production features remixed sound files from GowlerMusic on Freesound.org. As well as licenced music from Loopmasters and Splice.

Thank you for joining me for this edition of Popjournalism. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes. Until next time, see you at Popjournalism.com.
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