How Can Indigenous Reporters Care for Themselves While Covering Trauma — and How Can Their Newsrooms Help?

In the last months, the remains of over a thousand people, including at least hundreds of Indigenous children, have been discovered on the properties of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. These discoveries have brought to the fore — for now — a subject that has long remained at the margins of mainstream media coverage in the United States: the genocide of millions of Indigenous people by colonizers. Late last month, American Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that the U.S. government would investigate the sites of former schools in this country where many more children may be buried.

Online editor Camille Baker spoke with CBC radio host Duncan McCue about the North American media's coverage of residential schools and Indigenous affairs. McCue, who is Anishinaabe and a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in southern Ontario, is the creator of Reporting in Indigenous Communities, a guide to covering Indigenous people for journalists. His textbook, Decolonizing Journalism, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022. In his conversation with the Dart Center, McCue discusses the emotional toll of covering trauma for Indigenous and non-Indigenous reporters alike, what he does to care for his mental health and why non-Indigenous reporters need cultural competency training to do their jobs well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CB: In preparing for this interview, I wondered, is Duncan getting a million similar media requests, given the recent news about residential schools? Do you have any  complicated or difficult feelings about being a reporter who specializes in covering Indigenous people?

DM: Unlike when I started out in my career, there are plenty of Indigenous reporters in Canada and the United States now. A growing number — not as many as we need, but there are more and more. And I think we have all been called upon, particularly in the last months, to share our expertise. 

Is it exhausting? It can be, to be honest with you. The number of requests both professionally and personally have been overwhelming, but this is the work we have chosen to do. We're doing it for a reason; we want to see positive change in our respective countries, and we're telling stories and sharing news for a reason. So it comes with the territory. Suddenly it appears that the mainstream media has awoken to the fact that they haven't done a very good job over the years of covering Indigenous affairs.

Duncan McCue

Can I ask how you go about protecting yourself emotionally when you’re asked to speak so frequently about very difficult or traumatic topics? How do you decide when to decline an interview? Do you ever decide to do decline an interview?

You need to be really clear with your managers about the demands on your time and about the toll that it takes emotionally. I'm fortunate; I've been in this business for a while. So I have the kind of relationship with my bosses in which I can be frank about that kind of overload when it's happening. It's harder for our younger journalists, Indigenous journalists who are just breaking into the field, who are being asked to yeoman's service often. That can be a more difficult conversation. 

However, I have learned the hard way that covering traumatic stories — such as the residential school issue in Canada, or missing and murdered Indigenous women, or sexual abuse in our communities, or the list goes on and on and on — can take a toll on you as a journalist and as a human being. And if we don't take care of ourselves, if we don't say "no," if we don't rest, if we don't build up our resources spiritually or emotionally, then we can't do the work over the long term. I don't want to see that happen to young Indigenous journalists or non-Indigenous journalists who are covering this beat. If they are in it for the long term, then they need to make sure that they take care of themselves.

What does taking care of yourself look like? Do you have any specific routines that you adhere to to help you deal with this kind of thing? You mentioned spirituality.

It depends on the story that you're covering, and obviously if you're in the midst of a heavy news event it's more difficult to find the time, but you do need to find the time. So for me it is as simple as trying to get as much sleep and exercise as possible, and eating properly. In my own personal life, I have Indigenous spiritual practices which I follow, whether that is smudging daily or attending a sweat lodge. Those are things that are important to me. Some people may go to church. Some people may go for a walk in the woods. Whatever it is that brings you peace and balance, it's important not to forget those [things], despite the enormity of the journalism task.

I was once covering a very difficult story about eagle poaching. It was about an organized poaching ring that I uncovered was being run by some Native folks to sell, illicitly, eagle parts. I was told by an elder I was consulting with that I was a conduit to share that story, but that it wasn't my pain to carry, and that I had to let that pain go. 

That was a good lesson for me. We can and do suffer vicarious trauma when we repeatedly speak with people about the pain and challenges and trauma that they've gone through in their lives. And we can't carry that. You can empathize or sympathize, but to carry it ourselves in our body and our minds can bring us into ill health. 

There really is no doubt that if you cover Indigenous affairs, whether you're an arts reporter or a sports reporter or a news reporter, you are going to deal with a lot of trauma. In Canada, there are studies where Indigenous people are four to five times more likely to experience more severe trauma than other Canadians.

Because of historical trauma and traumatic events, the people we are interviewing will inevitably be sharing their pain and suffering with us. And we need to take care of that; we need to respect that pain and suffering and trauma that they have experienced. But we also need to take care of ourselves when we're doing that work.

I noticed you didn't mention therapy — what do you think of talk therapy?

What I mentioned was what works for me. And I would leave people to determine that for themselves. I haven't engaged in talk therapy for my work purposes. I have in my personal life and I've found it to be very helpful, but it hasn't been part of my regime. But I think it's an excellent idea for people who need someone to share what they're going through with. Someone that isn't a work colleague, someone that isn't a manager, someone that isn't a loved one.

Thank you for being candid about that. I know the subject can be sensitive.

I will also just add this: While there are plenty of news organizations that have good employment assistant support programs, it can be particularly important for Indigenous employees who find so-called talk therapy through different means, like Indigenous spirituality. 

So if I choose to go to an elder, which is the protocol in my community, I've got no way to compensate that person in the way that I would compensate a counselor or a psychologist who I'm speaking with. I think that's something that news organizations need to understand: that employees of Indigenous heritage may wish to explore traditional forms of healing which deserve to be counted as expertise in the same way that a talk therapist would. At CBC, that's something that we're now currently exploring.

I wonder if there may be a somewhat more robust community of Indigenous journalists in Canada than in the U.S. Is that the case?

I just had a long conversation with Mark Trahant, who is the [editor] of Indian Country Today, and he said that the daily news conversation [in Canada] has included discussions of Indigenous issues for years now, which is true. It is a topic of daily news, to see Indigenous people on the front pages leading our newscasts, whether it is resource development issues, whether it is the current residential school reckoning, if you want to call it that. 

That's not the situation in the United States. By and large, Indigenous people remain invisible to the mainstream American media. There is an incredibly vibrant Native journalism community covering tribal affairs, but in terms of mainstream journalism, sadly, the American media have not addressed the lack of hiring of Native Americans. Their coverage is woefully inadequate. Up until recently, NPR didn't even measure the amount of Native American content they were doing in their diversity report.

So there are numerous examples of the American mainstream media simply ignoring Native American coverage, which is not the case in Canada. Slowly but surely, the mainstream media in Canada is beginning to realize they need to have Indigenous staff in their newsrooms and that they need to increase the amount of Indigenous content in their newscasts.

"The people we are interviewing will inevitably be sharing their pain and suffering with us. We need to respect that pain and suffering and trauma that they have experienced. But we also need to take care of ourselves when we're doing that work."

I've asked you what you do to care for yourself in your work. I wanted to shift the dynamic and ask about what newsrooms can do to be supportive of Indigenous reporters on a very basic level. I suspect that your excellent guide, Reporting in Indigenous Communities, is geared along these lines. 

I wrote that guide ten years ago when I was on a John S. Knight fellowship at Stanford University, because there was a real lack of resources for non-Indigenous reporters in terms of how to cover Indigenous communities. And that was resulting in problematic coverage, full of tropes and stereotypes, that was at times hurtful and even harmful to Indigenous communities. So my goal with writing the guide was to try to begin the education process for non-Indigenous journalists who may not have been exposed to Indigenous issues in their education and were suddenly thrust into covering complex and often traumatic stories in Indigenous communities.

One of the essential aspects of the guide was that non-Indigenous journalists need to develop some kind of cultural competency before they set out to cover Indigenous affairs. Every day, if you're a daily news reporter, you go into the newsroom and you don't know necessarily what you're going to cover. And we become experts in what we're covering. That's part of the news business. But when you are dealing with racialized communities and the unconscious biases that all of us carry as a result of popular culture, there needs to be a decolonization of our thinking before we go out and tell the rest of the world about these communities. There are biases within all of us that we may not even be aware of. And that was what the goal of the guide was, to try to begin some sort of cultural competency, to establish a baseline.

 "There needs to be a decolonization of our thinking before we go out and tell the rest of the world about these communities. There are biases within all of us."

For example, the different approach that some Indigenous communities may have to death protocols  — you need to be aware of that before you go sticking a camera in someone's face. You know, whether it's dealing with Indian time and what Indian time means — there are different conceptions of time which conflict with the deadlines that we operate on.

Ten years ago what I didn't write about was trauma-informed journalism. Certainly the Dart Center was discussing that in the context of war and catastrophic disasters, but I think we were just at the beginning of recognizing that every journalist who goes in to cover “Indian country”, as they call it in the United States, is going to be dealing with trauma. And they need to understand informed consent. It is unfair and unethical to deal with subjects who have been traumatized in the same way that we would streeters after a hockey or football game. 

Every newsroom in your country should be asking themselves, what kind of training are we giving to our staff, our reporters, about covering diverse communities? If they're covering Indigenous affairs, then are we offering our journalists some kind of cultural competency training which will give them some background before they head out and start sticking their microphones into the faces of people and asking, "how does it feel?"