On the role of Indigenous media: Interview with John Schertow, editor-in-chief at Intercontinental Cry
Today, media is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe: from entertainment to journalism to blogging and everything in between, we are constantly bombarded with all kinds of ideas. As Indigenous People continue their struggle against the legacies of a colonial history, they, too, are using media to voice their stories in unique and culturally-distinct ways. Below is an excerpt of a conversation with John Schertow, editor-in-chief at Intercontinental Cry, on the role of Indigenous media here and abroad, and the effect it is having on the various resistance movements across the American continent.
Fernando Arce: Generally speaking, what is your opinion on the role of media?
John Schertow: In general terms, media is a vehicle that we all use to share stories about our cultures, languages, perspectives, opinions and histories. It plays a functional role in every society on the planet. It helps us to secure the growth and maintenance of healthy communities. It serves a very crucial role in social and political movements. It enables us to learn from our experiences, to come together as communities and to deal with local, national and international traumas. And also to engage opportunities and stay informed about the threats and challenges that we all face.
FA: Do you think Canadian media has fulfilled that function when covering Indigenous stories?
Non-Indigenous media, or colonial media, as I'm starting to describe it now, severely dis-serves Indigenous Peoples across the entire spectrum. Not only does non-Indigenous media ignore Indigenous voices, opinions and perspectives. A lot of the coverage...is often homogeneous and biased, trite, condescending, sensationalized and factually inaccurate. There's this huge range of problems that exist in non-Indigenous media that dis-serves and undermines the health and well-being of Indigenous nations and their capacity to organize around threats to their culture.
What effect does it have on society at large to be ignorant of these facts, perspectives and voices?
It perpetuates human rights abuses, for one. It allows corporations, governments and, in some cases, non-governmental organizations to act with impunity. It just keeps the general population...completely unaware, and that, in turn, promotes racism...In Canada, and many other countries around the world like Peru and Brazil there's such a deep sense of racism because journalism, and the media, which is often controlled by the government, don't go out of their way to build cultural sensitivity or awareness in the population. So it supports and enables human rights abuses also on the federal level by keeping everybody ignorant and unaware, unable to really articulate the severity of the problem.
FA: Interestingly, one could argue that it's been that suppression of Indigenous voices that has pushed more Indigenous people and governments toward media liberalization. In Ecuador, for instance, the government has passed a media law that allocates 33 per cent of media air-space for mainstream and corporate news, 33 per cent for community and Indigenous voices, and 33 per cent for publicly-funded outlets. What do you think of those kinds of measures?
I think they're brilliant. That's actually something I'm preparing to pursue through Intercontinental Cry – to convince non-Indigenous media outlets, particularly alternative media outlets, to set a minimum contribution to Indigenous Peoples. Even if Rabble or Canadian Dimension committed one per cent of their coverage to Indigenous people (which neither of them meet), the amount of articles would increase five, 10-, 20-fold. Non-Indigenous media doesn't have any commitment like that; they just cover what they want or whatever is trending. Obviously non-Indigenous society needs to do better, and I don't think they should have to wait for the government to enforce it like that; to just start stepping up and start acting more responsibly.
A lot of people like yourself are not waiting for the government to make it happen, and there are more Indigenous news outlets coming out on their own. Do you think there might be an issue of competing with each other for readership and advertising dollars, especially since funding is such a challenge for Indigenous outlets?
Depends on what scale of media we're talking about. If we're talking about international, for example, in Canada there's only one international Indigenous news outlet that I know of, and that's IC. National is somewhat of a different story, but most of the newspapers and radio stations and TV stations that I see – and there are quite a few – seem to get by for the most part. I know Wawatay News has been struggling for the last few years, but has managed to get funding, I think from federal government. But when we get to local media specifically, I find that many of the community-based news services are funded directly by band councils with funds from the federal government. Foundation money is non-existent in Indian Country, specifically relating to media. But advertising is another big concern that I know. We don't implement advertising on IC, but I see a lot of other nationally-focused Indigenous media outlets like mediaINDIGENA, which is scrambling to find advertising. And I think the same is true for the US. I guess it's not a market advertisers are interested in. So it's definitely a problem.
FA: And how are you getting by, sifting through that?
By eating two meals a day. (laughs). We've been looking for funding for about two years now. I have been working around the clock to find foundation support for IC. There's just so much that we need to cover; the problems that we're talking about in Canada are global. And our focus is global. We're working with many Indigenous communities around the world to provide decent representation for them, and there's no foundations that are willing to support us. We've had two more rejections in the last two weeks. So it's really a big problem. And crowd-funding, unfortunately, isn't the big boon that everybody talks about either for Indigenous media.
FA: Why do you think that is?
Part of it is the lack of interest. One one hand, the general public, or non-Indigenous people, don't necessarily see the personal value in supporting Indigenous media, because it has no direct bearing on their lives. And I think that's a big problem. We see in Europe, for example, there have been three new media outlets in the last two years that managed to raise over a million euros each, which is totally uncanny, but they're addressing a need that speaks to all those people. With the prevailing perceptions of Indigenous people – how there's this point of opposition between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – there is no...support. So that's really the biggest problem. And that everybody is spread thin. People want to support something that is going to have the biggest impact on the issues that matter to them, and Indigenous rights and struggles usually aren't very high on their priority list.
FA: What can journalism schools or programs do to teach prospective journalists to be not only culturally sensitive, but more politically critical when seeking out Indigenous stories, so as to put these issues on people's radars?
It would be hard for journalism schools to take up that role, because becoming politically active in that sense would probably get their funding cut. But there's plenty of opportunity for independent journalism education programs to be created. But there aren't too many. I actually created something recently called the [SweetGrass Protocols], which is a series of protocols that non-Indigenous people can use to properly represent and respect Indigenous cultures and rights. For example, how many journalists have you ever heard of that seek out the free-prior-and-informed-consent, a big buzz word right now, of an Indigenous nation? It's almost unheard of. And I am actually trying to work out a partnership through University of British Columbia's School of Journalism to put the protocol to use, but that hasn't materialized yet.
We're also planning to create an online Indigenous media course that's going to (work on) a sliding scale: free for Indigenous people and, depending on what a person's income is, they'll get it for free or (subsidized). The main part of that, specially for Indigenous people, is to give people a basic understanding of how to produce media – websites, documentaries, that kind of thing. And we're going to be developing the ethical journalism side, which is going to be directed at non-Indigenous people. But there isn't a lot of work like that taking place. I do see a lot of effort among universities to start implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but in terms of media coverage in journalism, there's very little effort I see in Canada's media landscape to adequately support Indigenous people and to develop the sense of obligation that all journalists should have towards these entrenched struggles.
FA: How important is professional journalism training in order to bring these stories to people?
I've never been to university and I get by pretty well. There's a great deal of value to it, and training provides journalists with fairly good standards – not culturally responsible standards, but it enables people to construct narratives that can be engaging and certainly useful for readers. There's a tonne of room for journalism and human rights organizations to grow that kind of public service. It's something that universities don't provide and if government won't, it's on us, those with the will and vision and sense of obligation to push forward that kind of work.
FA: What's being done to attract more Indigenous people to journalism?
That really is a problem. It really depends on demonstrating the important role that journalism plays. What we do see a lot of are Indigenous activists, specially youth. When I was 16,...I didn't really have an awareness of the role that media played in the social justice scene. Now I have that understanding. So it's important for people who are aware of the value of media to inspire and impart that knowledge, and then to develop an awareness and to support Indigenous youth to move forward.
FA: From your perspective, how does the lived reality of Indigenous people affect or influence their journalistic and media experience, and how can that help educate non-native people?
I don't think journalism portrays the reality...because you can't focus on one aspect of a nation's struggle; you have to provide context, and that's a great deal of work. In journalism it's very hard, especially when you get into mainstream coverage, because it's even more compartmentalized. I can't even tell you how many stories I've come across where journalists don't even mention the name of the nation...That's the role Indigenous media plays: not just for supporting the health and stability of a nation and its people, but also to inform the international community...of the reality; to fill in all the blanks for them that are created by colonized society.
FA: How about building links – has any of that begun to happen?
Not really. In Canada, for instance, I've tried reaching out to different media groups and friends, but in terms of working together actively there isn't lot of collaboration or partnerships that are going on. And I think the same thing is true between Indigenous media in North and Latin America.
FA: What do you think is needed to be more coordinated?
Two things: the will and time. We're all so stressed for time and that's actually a pretty big problem. I've [been trying to network for a couple of years now but everyone's] stretched thin and it's hard to create a fire out of thin air, but I think if we actually do start supporting each other more and get more people involved and build the awareness on the role of media we can change the situation quite a bit, but if we can't and we get trapped in the limitations that colonial society provides, especially by limiting what we do based on how much funding we get, or selling out and producing endless lines of yellow journalism to get funding, that creates an even bigger burden that dis-serves us all...But hopefully the new generations of Indigenous activists realize the role of media here and start pushing forward in a way that serves everybody.
FA: And finally, how do you see Indigenous media – not only journalism – in relation to Indigenous sovereignty?
I think it plays an active role in the sovereignty or [the] capacity of a nation to govern itself and to maintain itself. Not only by helping to ensure that a community is cohesive, or by providing opportunities for the nation to promote and use their language; it builds a sense of integrity and promotes the nation and helps to inform everybody so that they can actively partake in everything that's happening around them. If we look at any scenario where media is dead, or where it's controlled or absolutely dominated by government interests, we find a completely disillusioned, uninformed, un-inspired, fear-ridden totalitarian state. So it's very important for nations to have the capacity to produce their own media...for sovereignty at large.