alt = different?

The Dominion / Media CoopThat’s the question I wanted to answer before heading into Montreal last week. I was invited to a sit on a panel discussing Indigenous issues with an alternative audience and Q&A to follow.

The occasion was the launch of a special print edition of the Dominion Magazine. Leanne Simpson wrote the cover story: “Idle No More: Where the Mainstream Media Went Wrong”. So I sat down, scanned a dozen or so alternative and mainstream media (MSM) sites to compare their coverage of the same or similar stories. What I found surprised me.

I’ve written for or worked in the mainstream for most of my journalist life. I’ve embraced alternative media more since leaving daily journalism. I consume both to try to keep myself informed and up-to-date on issues. For me, it’s all about information.

I like a wide range of information that I hope will provide a semblance of context. I depend on my critical judgement to take me through all that and arrive at something closer to the ever-elusive “truth”. I know I’m never going to get there. But – as the cliché goes – it’s about the journey.

I’m of an age where I’ve learned to be skeptical of everyone claiming to possess and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Everyone lies. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone wears a mask and has motives. They may or may not plan to spin but the truth can and does still wind up as roadkill on today’s information highway.

People – the audiences – don’t want to take time anymore to strive for something called neutrality, objectivity, or perspective. They want fast food. Instant and definitive wisdom. The kind that comes pre-packaged to fit comfortable prejudices; news that confirms – not challenges – their biases. Or at least, that’s what Fox News, CNN and much of the alternative media wants us to know.

I know. Huge over-simplification. But that’s the gist of my message right there in that last sentence. While the MSM provides a handy punching bag for the alternative media, they’re not that different from each other in the stories they cover. For example, when it comes to Indigenous issues in Canada, they both prefer stories about confrontation. A demonstration. A blockade. A hunger strike. A Facebook page or use of social media to attack an institution. Their approaches to these stories may differ – but not that much.

Both the MS and the alternative medias don’t seem that interested in human beings. You know, real people. I say this because most of the stories I came across weren’t about people but nebulous issues. Real people, if they appeared, were used as a writing device to grab the reader’s attention. The writer could then dispose of them and get back to the real story. The story might begin with a Cree man, his wife and their children huddling in a tar paper shack in freezing Attawapiskat. But that was to get the reader to the real story, a political story in Ottawa, with professional actors given centre stage.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a useful technique. It may get some people to read the rest of the article. They might even learn something; maybe even get them to join a demonstration against government inaction. Then again, it might get someone else to demand the government bulldoze that community and ship everyone south. Usually though, nothing happens because the story doesn’t connect on a human level.

I have a dream, I wanted to tell to that room in Montreal. A naive dream where journalists don’t settle to be note-takers. Where journalists want to bring forward great moral and ethical questions about their country, governments and society. Here is “Right” and there is “Wrong”.  Now choose. But know that you’ve been properly informed and will be held accountable. Stop treating Indigenous peoples like problems but questions about Canada’s soul.

The mainstream and alternative medias aren’t that different for another reason. They both depend upon easy stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. If there’s a difference, its about which side of the stereotypical coin they choose. The flip-sides of these deep-rooted stereotypes are so well-known and recognized that it’s a cliché in Canadian journalism.

To recap: There’s the “noble savage”, a romantic version of the Indian in touch with the spirits, at one with the land, with deep innocence and infinite wisdom. On the flip side, there’s the “renegade savage”; unpredictable, chaotic, in need of a civilizing hand and constant control. As a general rule, the mainstream and alternative medias have chosen and stay with their different sides. The National Post, for example, prefers  the “renegade savage” while the alternative likes the “noble savage”.

Stereotypes are an indispensable tool in the average journalists or writer’s toolbox. We use them to convert complicated stories into bite-sized chunks for audience consumption. But they present one dimensional and almost unrecognizable versions of people. Take the G-8 and G-20 summits in Toronto from a few years ago.

Depending on whether you were reading a mainstream publication or an alternative web site, the cops were either thugs with badges or a thin blue shield against domestic terrorism. The demonstrators had similar but opposite stereotypes. So the coverage either portrayed thugs with badges versus defenders of liberty; or thin blue shield versus destructive anarchists. These shaped the way most Canadians perceived what happened in Toronto that summer .

You had to be there to know what was really going on because the two major themes of that story were so similar to the rest of the country.  So most people chose whatever version they felt fit them most comfortably. They didn’t know who to believe. The truth was lost in the confusion. It’s similar to the way the media – the MSM and the alternative – cover Indigenous peoples.

For the past 30 years or so, the mainstream has undergone massive changes. The MSM has become less diverse, more concentrated with fewer owners, fewer ideological perspectives, fewer sources of news, less original journalism, more recycled news, much higher dependence on pre-packaged PR spin, more closures of news bureaux, more cuts to newsroom operating budgets, fewer paid journalists in fewer mainstream newsrooms.

Blame hundreds of news channels on satellite and cable, the growth and expansion of the Internet, the proliferation of online news sites, news aggregators, fragmented audiences, changes in audience habits, changes in the marketplace, lack of adaptive revenue models, falling profits, inability to adapt to change, budget cuts, layoffs, media mergers, and the demise of entire news operations.

For both the mainstream and the alternative medias, this has been bad news. It means the mainstream is less mobile, more dependent on people telling them what’s going on, less able to get out into communities to explore first-hand, more reliant on canned stories, less able to fact-check, and more vulnerable to media spin due to increased dependence on PR. They still have to churn out the same amount of sausages every day but with fewer horses and resources at their disposal. The MSM knows that “vulnerable” is exactly the right way to describe their situation.

My challenge to the alternative audience at the launch of the Dominion Magazine that night was this. Take advantage of the mainstream media’s situation. They face challenges. You have opportunities. Fill the gaps in coverage. Take the initiative to improve journalism overall. Be a real alternative – especially to those PR factories. Don’t just cover the same stories with slight differences. Be radically different. Be better in the way you cover stories about Indigenous peoples but every other story too.

Their big advantage, I suggested to the audience that night, was “time”. The alternative media doesn’t have the constant daily deadlines that anchors mainstream journalists to their desks. They can take the time to get out to explore communities, learn about these places, understand better the stories behind the issues.  Most importantly, alternative journalists can take the time to know and understand what matters most – the people living these stories.

Alternative journalists, I said, could begin by telling real stories about people instead of intellectual theses about grand issues.  I described much of what the alternative does as “earnest, intense, eminently worthwhile, and ultimately boring.” It was always so “right”. It was always “so good for you.” It was like being fed plates of nothing but broccoli for breakfast, lunch and supper, day after day, year after year.

Why not do better journalism? Why keep doing the same thing as the mainstream media only slightly differently?  Why not learn from and strive to achieve what two examples accomplished earlier that evening. Both were short video presentations. Both were “slices of life” from two very different communities, peoples, and continents.

The first video was a series of slides about the lives of people in the sprawling Kibera slum, home to more than 2.5-million people, book-ended by a exclusive golf course one side and a modern university on the other, just west of Nairobi, Kenya. The narration was spare, used mainly to explain the story behind the picture and let the image speak for itself. It was human and engrossing. Best – it dared me to think.

The second video was about a cantankerous street person, a violinist, a man poor in so many ways but with a deep love of music and of his violin. His love of life and personal freedom, despite living on the streets, was almost enviable. It was a character portrait without narration or judgement. It reeked of humanity. I learned so much without a single academic study, government report, statistic, or major fact.  Yet, it revealed so much about a man, his place in society, a part of the city that’s often overlooked and ignored.

Get the picture. Why can’t the alternative strive to make its stories more like this and less like a photocopy of a mainstream newspaper or magazine? This is the kind of stuff that the alternative media could be doing much more. But to get there, the alternative would need to define its style of journalism and develop many of the things that it hates about the mainstream media.

The strength of the alternative is in its “citizen journalists” and their ability to get into places on the other side of the ideological walls surrounding gated communities of society’s privileged patrolled by the mainstream. To get there requires better “citizen journalism” encouraged by better editing to push writers beyond comfortable, predominant stereotypes about Indigenous and other peoples. It means championing people – not issues.

This kind of more personal journalism might also offer an alternative to the mass produced PR spin that’s endlessly recycled these days almost unchanged by much of the mainstream media. Who knows? It might also create a whole new source of revenue for the alternative media if they begin to feed material to these mainstream sausage factories. It could even lead to more critical, questioning and more appreciative readers of the alternative media.

Of course, the alternative media could just keep doing what it’s been doing – settling on being “mainstream lite”.

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Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Indigenous peoples, journalism

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