Global Journalist

Defining 'indigenous' in international news

To most readers, listeners or viewers, the word “indigenous” would seem harmless enough as a description of an exotic group in a far away place. But actually the writer using it generally does so out of a laziness or need for over-simplification. In fact, its use is controversial, leaving a large gap between reality and what the word conveys to readers.

How do reporters determine when, how and to whom to apply this term “indigenous?”

This reporter studied articles by BBC and CNN for the past few years and discovered:

BBC tends to define “indigenous” as people native to a location who still hold onto ancient traditions, such as “Artic natives” who hunt whales for food.

BBC reporters often referred to “indigenous” people as people living more primitive lifestyles than others in the same location. They mainly used the word in stories titled: “Are indigenous languages dead?” “Americas hold indigenous summit,” “Mixed views on UN indigenous decade” and “Indigenous population ‘neglected,’” and not in stories referring to a single people group.

• The BBC tended to focus mainly on Australia, Canada, India and the Pacific Islands when covering “indigenous” people or issues. It also called many in Russia and the Middle East indigenous and reported on some indigenous groups and issues in Central and South America.

BBC appeared to define “indigenous” as people in Third World countries who live a life of survival, foragery, poverty and social divergence, be they originally from the land they live on or not.

CNN reporters, on the other hand, tossed around the word “indigenous” as if it was invalid currency. In CNN articles, “indigenous” could mean local, native, ancient, domestic, homegrown – and stand for almost any race other than Caucasian.

Where the BBC defined “indigenous” as more socio-economic and cultural, CNN defined it as socio-racial and cultural.

From reading excerpts from the BBC, one would get the idea that “indigenous” people are depraved, impoverished, powerless and of little to no social and or economic value to the countries in which they resided.

Recent stories from BBC said indigenous people are unable to “manage their resources,” and “their land has been taken away,” Which in turn, “has driven indigenous people further into poverty.” Other stories on Aboriginal Australians read, “… the loss of land had forced many aborigines to migrate for jobs, mostly from rural areas to the margins of cities and shanty towns.”

If indigenous people in BBC’s stories were not portrayed as poor, seeking social recompense or federal funding, they were depicted as living in ancient cultures, with ancient traditions and customs.

I did not find a single BBC report on indigenous people assimilating into mainstream culture, indigenous people’s modern concerns or lifestyles, or stories of individuals from native people groups succeeding in life – except for a few stories on the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2006.

CNN covered indigenous populations much like the BBC, but CNN reporters seemed only to refer to native groups as “indigenous” if they were from an ethnic background such as African, Native American and Aboriginal Australian.

CNN also seemed to stress the differences between indigenous societies and the rest of society. In a story titled “Guatemala apologizes to U.S. widow for husband’s death,” the reporter reiterates the differences between the indigenous and the non-indigenous story subjects. “Bamaca (Efrain Bamaca, husband), a high-ranking leader who was illiterate before joining the guerrilla met Harbury (Jennifer Harbury, wife) in 1990 when she visited their mountain hideout to research a book about the war. The Harvard-educated lawyer and the indigenous farmer were married a year later.” Later, the reporter simply refers to Bamaca as Harbury’s “guerrilla husband.”

• Like the BBC, CNN stressed the economic and social extremes in which many indigenous populations lived. In a CNN story titled “Poverty still the indigenous norm,” the reporter writes, “While most of the changes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been designed to give them a better chance in life, government reports show that on every measure they are overwhelmingly less well-off than their fellow citizens.”

Much of BBC’s reporting was a half-hearted attempt to act as a watchdog for injustices done to indigenous people. For instance, one story read, “ … indigenous people are still among the most marginalized and dispossessed sectors of society, says Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the UN’s representative for human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.” The article continues by saying, “Their land has been taken away, their sustainable use of land dismissed, and their cultures have been denigrated …”

In another story on whaling rights, the text read, “Representatives of the indigenous people of Alaska and Russia said the ban would leave them hungry …”

CNN tended to be a bit more critical of indigenous groups, and though CNN reporters gave more specific background and names in their stories than BBC reporters. CNN rarely included actual indigenous sources in their stories. The stories tended to be ethnocentric.

For instance a story titled “Columbus Day holiday arrives on stormy historical waters,” reported, “In Denver, Colorado, last weekend, Italian-Americans holding a Columbus Day parade faced protests from Native-American and Hispanic activists.” Instead of shedding light on the reason for the protests it perpetuated prejudice. The story later reported, “… presidential candidate Pat Buchanan accused the Columbus Day parade protesters in Denver of “cultural Marxism.” He added, “It’s all part of a political correctness, which is another name for cultural Marxism. It is anti-European and anti-Western civilization, … We have a right to our heroes and they to theirs.”

In another CNN story on the possibility of building a canal through Nicaragua, the reporter lumps “indigenous people” with other environmental concerns, as if they were part of the landscape. “Environmentalists worry about the impact a Nicaraguan canal would have on wildlife, vegetation and indigenous people …” In such a sentence, these people are only seen as an environmental variable to factor in when deciding whether or not to build. They are not given a voice; they are not given context; and they are not given a name.

If CNN isn’t creating distance, they are simply maintaining distance between indigenous people groups and mainstream society. They point out differences between indigenous populations and the rest of the world in regards to poverty, health, income and education.

• Lastly, CNN coverage defined anyone in a nation that was different from what CNN reporters would classify as “civilized” were referred to as “indigenous.”

A CNN story on Liberia reported that the Africans living in Liberia who were not descendants of freed slaves who returned to Africa from the U.S. were defined as indigenous. “Decades after Liberia’s founding, the same tension between the ruling class – the descendants of the freed black slaves, which make up about 5 percent of the population – and the indigenous Africans spurred a 1980 coup.” In such a case, the reporter could have simply distinguished the slave descendants, who were the minority, and not set aside the whole population of Liberia as “indigenous.”

In an article titled, “Media, Disaster Relief and Images of the Developing World: Strategies for Rapid, Accurate, and Effective Coverage of Complex Stories From Around the Globe” Fred H. Cate, wrote:

“Much of the public throughout the industrialized world share an image of developing countries that is incomplete and inaccurate.” He also said, “Most of the developed world’s information about the developing world comes from two sources – the news media and relief organizations. Despite considerable efforts to be accurate and timely, both the media and relief organizations unintentionally contribute to disordered images of the developing world (and indigenous populations) because both focus on the unusual, the extraordinary, the dramatic. Yet western viewers and readers perceive this information without context or background of information or experience against which to evaluate its significance. Thus, the public’s perception of developing countries (and/or indigenous people) may be formed entirely of information about exceptions, rather than the norms, of daily life.”

To combat this misrepresentation of “indigenous” in the news, reporters can use a wider variety of sources, including indigenous people themselves. As Russell Means, a Lakota activist and the founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), said in regards to the use of the term “Native American:”

“I abhor the term Native American. It is a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States. …I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins . . . We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose,” he said.

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