RE:SOURCES IN JOURNALISM

What the journalism industry can learn from Indigenous teachings

Four Indigenous medicines: Sage, Sweetgrass, Cedar and Tobacco. Photo via Manitobah Blog.

Last term, I was conducting interviews for this article about Canada celebrating 150 years since Confederation. It was for a project on Urban Indigenous stories for my digital journalism class.

One of the first people I approached was Kiley May, a Mohawk artist and community educator. Kiley was one of my mentors at a queer youth community program that I had just completed. I thought that she might be interested in talking to me for the article, and if not, that they could connect me with people who were.

I told Kiley about the story that I planned to write and she emailed me with a few questions. One of the questions stood out to me.

"How will you be compensating the individuals for their time?"

That question re-framed the way that I saw the interview process. My source isn't just talking to me, they are sharing knowledge and experiences with me. Sometimes this knowledge is intimate, and the experiences are highly personal. In any case, they are doing work and deserve something in return.

Since I was working on a story with an Indigenous focus, I knew that tobacco and other healing herbs were the traditional gift exchanged for labour. But I hadn't considered the reasons and meaning behind that practice; I'd just thought of it as a cultural difference. But now I considered it as a principle that could hold true for the industry as a whole.

One of the first things I learned about journalistic ethics was that a situation where either the reporter or the source benefitted financially from a story was a conflict of interest. As such, I'd assumed that any form of compensation could look like a payoff and give the impression of bias, even if none was present in my work.

"We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal– Crown relations."

— Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Call To Action #86.

I realized that compensation didn't have to be just monetary. Perhaps I could buy my source a coffee when we met up. But what if coffee isn't useful or if it's not enough, considering what I learn from my source?

And so I encountered the question of how to quantify knowledge sharing. What is the experience of another person worth? How can I decide how to compensate them? Should I be the one deciding how to compensate them? Should it be the reporter, or the news organization who bears the responsibility for compensation? Who should be compensated, and who should not?

Duncan McCue is the Ryerson School of Journalism’s Rogers Visiting Journalist and is working with the university to include covering Indigenous issues on the curriculum. Photo via Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

The best solution I've come up with so far is this: train newsrooms not just in equity, but in anti-oppression. It's crucial that journalists understand their place of power in the world, and that they understand the varying experiences their colleagues and sources may have. If newsrooms have the grounding principles of anti-oppression, they should be able to develop guidelines and best practices for compensation.

On a newsroom policy level, these might look like specifying that there is no need to compensate someone who is a government or organization representative, or anyone who is already being paid to talk to you. I've come to the conclusion that compensation ought to be negotiated between the reporter and the source, but that the compensation be provided through a designated newsroom fund. This arrangement reflects the institutional power of newsrooms and accommodates freelancers, who may not be able to afford to front the compensation themselves.

I understand that there could be barriers to setting up this compensation fund. Smaller, independent newsrooms, for example, may have trouble budgeting for compensation in the first place. In this case, I think that news outlets should be honest with their sources about their situation and that some form of compensation could still be negotiated. Perhaps it could involve signal boosting a cause close to the source, or a solidarity action.

Students in the year above me worked on this project, as part of Ryerson's commitment to the 86th Call To Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Photo via Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

But for large media companies with a lot of resources, there's not much of an excuse. After the academic year ended, I worked for a mainstream news outlet (which I cannot name for legal reasons). One of my observations was that they appeared to have the opposite policy; sources such as university professors and policy experts were given an honorarium, but community advocates and marginalized people were not. It is also worth noting that the people I saw compensated were disproportionately white men.

The point of mentioning this is to note that large newsrooms can and do provide monetary compensation without any apparent issue. However, the general public are not aware of this practice — I definitely didn't know about it until I started working there. It also highlights the issue of determining who gets compensation and reflects how different newsrooms value different types of knowledge. In my opinion, newsrooms should do a better job of seeking out experts who also have lived experience, but that's a story for another day.

I don't anticipate the idea of institutionalizing compensation being popular in many newsrooms, especially those that still strive for "objectivity." But for newsrooms that strive to create meaningful change with their work, these are questions worth asking.

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