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Canada's media needs to get over objectivity and start practicing solidarity

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Photo: Sophia Reuss

Two weeks ago, nearly 100 people gathered outside of the Toronto Stock Exchange and marched through downtown Toronto to protest the North Dakota Access Pipeline and express solidarity with the blockade at the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The police were there from the get-go, corralling the group and blocking traffic. Led by a group of five Indigenous women, we waded through the streets, chanting, drumming and singing.

The media, on the other hand, showed up only after we proved newsworthy: when the rally collided with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

It started with a CP24 reporter. She showed up with a cameraperson at King and Duncan, demanding TIFF guards let us continue marching down King Street.


'Do an interview with me.'

"Global [News] made fun of us for being here at first, but look, they just showed up," she smirked to her cameraman as another reporting crew joined the crowd. Between takes, she grabbed the shirt of an ally who had just made an announcement to the group that a van would be leaving Toronto for North Dakota with supplies the next day.

"Do an interview with me," she demanded, grabbing his shirt. The demonstrator looked frazzled. It was hot, we were sitting on the asphalt, and no one was sure whether the TIFF guards were going to let us through.

"Um, I'd rather you speak to an Indigenous person," he responded. She looked frustrated and told him she would be live in five minutes. If he couldn't find anyone else, she'd do the interview with him.

He couldn't find anyone else. The organizers were busy and he didn't want to interrupt. He did the interview. Afterward, her voice dripping with condescension, the reporter told him not to worry, "I know why you're concerned and, don't worry, we're going to include everyone's voices."  

At our next stop, the CityNews reporter showed up. "I just got pulled off of another story," he said, after pulling an organizer out from the centre of the large circle and asking her "what was going on."

Cue CBC, 680News, and numerous other local television and radio stations.


Decolonizing Canada, one soundbite at a time

Perhaps I'm projecting, but the group's collective disdain for the mainstream media presence seemed palpable. Reporters continued to join us on the march to Yonge and Dundas Square. They hovered outside the circle, interrupting ceremonies and songs for interviews. They broke apart our joined hands to capture footage from within the circle, where only the Indigenous organizers stood. They cut interviewees off mid-speech: the perfect 30-second sound bite was all they needed. They asked questions that revealed they hadn't done their basic research.

"Why are Indigenous communities in Canada protesting an American pipeline?" would have elicited a more thoughtful response about the importance of cross-border solidarity than the CityNews reporter's "what is going on?" The question would have demonstrated that the reporter took the time to understand the context of the action and simultaneously provided the organizer with a clearer framework for a response.

Another protestor overheard the CityNews reporter's question ("what is going on") and interjected, frustrated. He chided the reporter and told him to do his research before offloading the labour to the Indigenous organizer. "I just got pulled off another story," the reporter shrugged. A flimsy excuse.

Mainstream media presence at rallies like last Thursday's is necessary, but exhausting. On the one hand, CBC reporters are often the only way activists' voices filter into popular consciousness and garner public awareness. Organizers gladly give interviews to ensure their voices are amplified.

On the other hand, mainstream media often feels like an exhausting child who continues to ask the same question again and again without ever listening to the answer. How many times do reporters have to ask why protestors are protesting before they can move on to more substantial questions that demonstrate awareness and understanding of the original answer?

Why not: "in your opinion, what is the relationship between the Indigenous resistance to the North Dakota Access Pipeline and Indigenous resistance to pipeline projects in Canada?" as opposed to "how come you're protesting all the way up here in Canada?" How about "what is the significance of the drumming and singing happening during this rally?" instead of "what are you doing?"


Indigenous voices matter

Taking the time to ask better questions is not just a formality some reporters choose to follow. Informed questions reveal that a reporter has taken the time to look around and actually listen to Indigenous voices. Asking good questions affirm that the interviewee's thoughts and demands matter -- that Indigenous voices matter.

Mainstream journalism spins circles around its claim to objectivity. Which means, in practice, reporters produce stories that counterbalance the voices of oppressors with those of the oppressed. Rarely, if ever, does mainstream media start and end with the voices of the oppressed. In a particularly egregious example, CBC published an article about Black Lives Matter Toronto's Pride sit-in that consults four white professionals -- and no Black people -- about the effectiveness of BLMTO's "strategy."

Even when they do seek out marginalized voices, at the Standing Rock rally, for example, they play right into power structures and histories of oppression. I'm not sure which is worse.

On Thursday, reporters asked Indigenous folks to relocate for interviews, brazenly ignoring Canada's ongoing history of settler colonialism, which hinges upon forcibly uprooting, relocating and displacing Indigenous communities from their land.

Reporters also asked non-Indigenous participants to describe their perspectives. A news story always contains a finite number of voices, and reporters have a finite amount of time to conduct interviews. This means that the media prioritizes certain interviews over others. More often than not, interview priority corresponds with privilege. Interviewing the police, TIFF security guards, non-Indigenous allies, or "experts" about an action only further silences Indigenous folks.


Journalism + Activism = <3

I went to the Solidarity with Standing Rock action to write an article about Indigenous resistance to pipeline projects. Striking a balance between participating in actions and writing stories about actions is uncomfortable at best. (And I'm often struck by the notion that for journalism to become less white, less male, less privileged, well then the white, male, privileged journalists will have to step aside and stop working. As a white, privileged, cis-hetero woman, that includes me.) 

But reconciling activism and journalism -- or solidarity and journalism, for that matter -- isn't impossible. It requires constant self-reflection, learning and unlearning, and deference. What is impossible, though, is mainstream media's effort to compartmentalize journalism and the intersecting power structures within which journalism operates. If you recognize the violence of white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, corporatization, ableism, and other intersecting power structures, it becomes clear that journalistic objectivity is a logical fallacy.

A reporter who interviews the state security apparatus about an anti-colonialism demonstration cannot claim journalistic objectivity. Nor can a reporter who reserves interviews for Indigenous folks. And that's because objectivity in the media doesn't exist. You can't just isolate one variable from another or use control variables like you're conducting a science experiment. Lived experience can never be objective, and are, by definition, intersecting. As a reporter, you make a choice: either you seek to understand how power structures operate and have operated, or you follow the status quo, or worse, the state.

And pigeonholing journalism that amplifies the voices of marginalized folks into a niche that many call "advocacy journalism" is part of the problem. We should require all media outlets to engage in self-reflection, not just those who self-describe as activists.

Can mainstream media do better? I'm sure. But what became clear to me last Thursday was that the price of solidarity is objectivity, which, I guess, never really existed in the first place. 

Sophia Reuss is a Toronto-based writer, editor and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal. She was rabble's 2016 summer news intern.

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Photo: Sophia Reuss

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