Training journalism students to report in Aboriginal communities

A funny thing happened on my way to the Fellowship: I came up with a new idea for a project.  The idea – to offer journalism students intensive training on how to report in Aboriginal communities – had been lurking in my brain for several years, but it wasn’t the project I pitched to the Knight Fellowship.

What I proposed in my application was a “toolkit” to assist reporters who cover First Nations in Canada. To be frank, when I dreamed that up, I wasn’t sure what it would look like.

But, not long after I applied for the Fellowship, I was invited to Australia, for UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, to join a gathering of broadcasters, journalists and educators who were discussing journalism in indigenous communities. My first visit to Australia was eye-opening on many fronts, but I was truly astonished to learn there are at least four journalism schools in Australia, and one in the United States, where students learn first-hand about indigenous issues, by studying and reporting in indigenous communities.

In Canada, where Aboriginal issues are under reported and misrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the media is not uncommon, I’ve talked with many non-Aboriginal reporters who feel there is a barrier between them and the Aboriginal community that makes it difficult to get “access.” I believe this has little to do with “race” and everything to do with training. Yet, good luck finding a journalism course in Canada that focuses on a “touchy” topic such as indigenous issues (or even “diversity”).

So, when I arrived at Stanford, I was still keen to tackle that toolkit (it morphed into an online educational guide, which I’ll be launching this fall) – but I had also secured a thumbs-up from the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (where I teach as an adjunct) to try to develop something new in journalism education in Canada.

Fortunately, I wasn’t starting from scratch. For nearly 20 years, the University of Montana School of Journalism has offered its “Native News Honors Project” – a course that brings together teams of print and photojournalism students to focus on Native American issues such as education, sovereignty, race or health. The good folks at U of M invited me to learn more about their program, and I returned to Stanford inspired.

As I saw it, there were two key elements to UBC’s course on reporting in indigenous communities:

1. Experiential learning

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, that offers feedback and support. That means it was key to get students into communities, where they’ll be expected to dig up enterprise stories, to hear and touch and feel what life is like in indigenous communities, and to get them to understand that they’re accountable to those communities for their work.

2. First Nation partnerships

The Journalism School couldn’t do it alone – we needed to have First Nations on board. We needed Aboriginal communities to offer input into the design and delivery of the course, and we needed their approval if we were expecting to send our students in to do research and reporting.

My biggest hesitation was about those partnerships. I wasn’t sure how First Nations would react to my proposal to unleash a small group of students on their communities, or my insistence on the School’s editorial control over their final product.

I started contacting First Nation communities in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, and securing their approval took awhile. Actually, it took a really long time. I understand why. Leaders in Aboriginal communities have many pressing issues on their plates, and journalism education is definitely low-priority.

But slowly, First Nation chiefs and administrators got back to me, telling me they believe this course is a starting point – an opportunity to change the oft-negative relationship between media and First Nations.

This September, I’m pleased to report the UBC School of Journalism has thirteen students enrolled in our inaugural Reporting in Indigenous Communities course, and we recently posted this press release on our website.

Building a course from scratch, especially one that weaves together as many complex elements as this one, took time. But the Knight Fellowship offered me that time – and now I can’t wait for school to start this January.

Watch this short talk, in which McCue describes his motivations in creating the toolkit for journalists and Aboriginal communities