It’s not the first time Indigenous people have been burned by the media.
Most recently, it was an article about Inuit in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, published in the New York Times, entitled “Drawn from Poverty: Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t.”
Many critics have been taking to social media to call out the New York Times and the reporter, Catherine Porter, for perpetuating harmful and racist stereotypes about addiction and poverty in what many are calling “trauma porn.”
Now, the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) has called on the Times to do an audit on how the story went to print. Francine Compton from the association said that they’ve set a meeting for Nov. 11, and the Times’ communications director confirmed this to National Observer.
In a statement, NAJA cites a journalist’s duty to avoid harming people, and said one “must be held accountable." NAJA calls out the Times for having “seemingly ignored its free Indigenous coverage training” that the association gave to their newsroom in May.
A complete lack of nuance and complexity without the faintest mention of colonialism. Teach this twitter thread and the garbage it’s attached to in J-School in a class called, “Without Context - White Woman Adventures In The North.” https://t.co/4wYHiOXjSq— Ryan McMahon (@RMComedy) October 26, 2019
“We’re putting the New York Times on the stand, in a sense, because that training was done,” said Compton. She’s from Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation and is on NAJA’s board of directors.
She said she dreaded reading the article — but felt she had to after seeing responses online and being tasked to draft NAJA’s response.
“I had to read the full article so I knew exactly what everyone was really outraged about,” she said. “And not just outraged. It was actually real hurt and pain it caused … not only to the sources, but all Inuit.”
The association also calls for the Times to issue an apology and hire more Indigenous journalists who know about the long history media has of stereotyping Indigenous people.
Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, director of communications at the Times, told National Observer no one was available for an interview and Porter is reporting in the Bahamas.
In an email statement, she said they “welcome” NAJA’s offer to meet.
“The issues that we recount came up repeatedly in the lives of the people we interviewed and profiled. They were frequently raised by members of the Cape Dorset community as significant, persistent challenges they wanted solved," she said. She then said the article also includes positive aspects about Cape Dorset.
“We look forward to continuing the conversation on these important topics with NAJA.”
Article doesn't use the words colonialism or trauma
Compton, who is also an executive producer at APTN, says journalists can report on these types of issues — but they need to practice trauma-informed journalism, contextualizing issues such as addiction within colonialism and institutionalized racism.
The article does not use the words colonialism or trauma. Yet, the article makes at least seven references to alcohol, drinking, bingeing or being drunk. It uses the word poverty five times (including the headline), without delving into how the government has set restrictions on hunters’ ability to sell game meat — which makes it hard for them to make a living — or the failings of the Nutrition North program and other economic factors.
Some other important terms are missing, Compton says: genocide, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry.
Taken together, some of the article’s descriptions can sound dystopian. Porter describes Cape Dorset as a place “plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse” where “brutality is never far away.” She describes people who were “once the epitome of self-reliance” but are now living lives “defined” by poverty. In the headline, she suggests Inuit need to be saved.
That’s not the home or people that Lisa Koperqualuk knows.
Koperqualuk, who lives in Iqaluit and advocates for Inuit rights, said Porter used sweeping generalizations in the article about poverty that didn’t make sense when the focus was meant to be on the young Inuit artist, Oosoolie Saila.
“It was about the art of this young woman. But the title of the article was about, well, that art was supposed to help ‘save’ the Inuit and that hasn’t happened… I just couldn’t agree with that,” she said.
Since a friend shared the article with her, Koperqualuk said she’s really concerned about how some people may read it.
“Not everyone knows who we are,” she said. “They might take that article at face value and think it’s true.”
As I told her: This piece is severely problematic. It’s poverty and trauma porn. There are ways to shed light on darkness respectfully. But your piece is not it. It is one in a loooong line of many that make privileged folk feel better about themselves by feeling bad for Inuit.— Alethea Arnaquq-Baril❄️ (@Alethea_Aggiuq) October 26, 2019
Porter did mention the history of the government’s “systematic attempts to erase Indigenous cultures,” and how the government brought Inuit into towns, displacing them from communities and committing dog slaughters.
National Observer tried to contact Porter by email, on Twitter and through the newspaper’s communications team. National Observer also asked to contact the editor of the piece but was told they were unavailable, and to refer to the emailed statement.
The Times would also not confirm whether Porter had been a part of NAJA’s Indigenous reporting training in May, or whether there are any Indigenous reporters or editors at the Times.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, a documentary filmmaker who made the film Angry Inuk defending Inuit seal-hunting, expressed her anger and disappointment regarding the article, since she had assisted Porter in her reporting.
“I am gutted by how bad this article is, and that I ever welcomed the author into my house,” she said. “She arrived in the North having no idea what to even write about, and I gave her a bazillion ideas, and instead she chose to reinforce stereotypes.”
Indeed, Compton says NAJA created a stereotype bingo card made up of common tropes about Indigenous people used by the media, such as “vanishing culture,” “alcohol” and “sexual assault.” She says she crossed out boxes as she read Porter’s article.
She said an apology is in order, and that NAJA is open to doing more training with them.
She said that for her, the “authoritative tone” of the article was one of the things that bothered her most, which she said reads like an outsider coming in and saying, “I’m going to tell you what life is like for Indigenous people in Canada.”
Porter doesn’t appear to have responded to the negative criticism she’s received online.
Compton thinks Porter was capable, with the time she was allotted, of doing the work necessary to include nuance and complexity. In fact, Porter visited Cape Dorset three times.
“It almost felt like the illusion of time spent was written into the piece,” she said, “but there really wasn’t any meat in the piece.”