Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Helping Families - Murdered Missing Indigenous Women - Dealing with Media

Helping families going through a MMIW situation deal with the media
by Michael Hutchinson
The media is a double-edged sword. The reach of the media may be an effective tool in educating the public that someone is missing, however, given the many different factions within the media and the various views on how objectivity is produced, the exposure can cause emotional pain, intellectual concern and leave a family feeling less in control of the situation.
Who are the media?
The media are a group of businesses that produce a product which is a collection of information that often makes its way into the homes of the general public. As businesses, they can be owed by interests that have opinions, politics and motivations. They have employees that can rookies, experienced, jaded, caring, knowledgeable, lazy, or selfish. The stories they create can be influenced by a kind word or a harsh one and may not be free from personal feelings on the issues, on the individuals involved, or on types/classes of people.
The principle of objectivity is supposed to be a concern of the media, but how a media venue defines objectivity, or accomplishes it, may vary. Many media today say true objectivity is impossible, so instead they pick a political side and just be upfront about that. Right-wing media will have a different perspective on issues than left-wing media. Rookie reporters may fulfill their need of a second side by finding someone that presents an alternative view, no matter if that alternative view is valid, held-by-many, or is openly antagonistic to the issue without being aware of the details in a particular case.
“Feeding the beast” is a phrase used by journalists to describe their day or work period. A newspaper has to fill column inches in order to sell. A TV show has to fill time in order to sell. News comes in cycles, so there will be times when media venues have a hard time filling their product (ex: some Mondays).
“Feeding the beast” also means deadlines as the product has to be put together. Both these facts mean that there good times and bad times to try to get reporters’ attention. Sometimes the timing of events means holding a press conference at a poor time, but knowing the needs of the reporters in your area will help you better plan as the situation progresses and time goes on.
“If it bleeds it leads” is unfortunately another principle within journalism. Media venues produce a product. It is human nature to value drama, conflict, awareness of the negative forces around us, and the promise of fulfillment of baser needs. The lowest common denominator is easy to sell. Conflict is the media’s bread and butter.
Credibility is also an important part of journalism. Reporters need to find credible people in order to fill their stories. This can be used as a carrot to lead reporters and we’ll discuss that in a bit.
Media also comes in formats that define what a report needs and what feds their beast. Print reporters will be looking for lots of detail, sometimes this can be a good thing, sometimes not. TV reporters will be heavily influenced by pictures and available visuals. They will need detail, but often not the amount print reporters will be looking for. Radio reporters are somewhere in the middle and will be looking for sounds. All the reporters will be looking for clips/quotes from the main players in a situation. How they want those delivered will be influenced by their product’s format.
The media’s most valuable traits for a family going through a MMIW situation is its ability to inform a wide range of the public and, hopefully, create a sense of caring about the situation. Indigenous organizations should help guide a family through a tragedy in a way that will be most healthy for the family, using the media to get positive results, while minimizing the negative aspects of being used by the media.
First Steps
Warning the family about the media
Media involvement is not always at the request of those involved. Any issue that has police involvement may attract the attention of the media. Before engaging the media, whether involved or not at the current time, the family should be warned about the media and all that has been mention above. Once the media are involved, the challenge will become influencing the reporters to include the family’s perspectives into their stories or, in some cases, putting the brakes on the story.
Once reporters are on the story, the family will not be able to stop the media from asking them or the police or others questions surrounding the issue. This means the family will not be able to stop reporters from sticking their nose in family issues, digging into the backstory of persons involved, or even using the family’s story to further the agenda of the media venue itself. For example, in the case of a runaway, the family will not be able to stop reporters from asking people who knew the runaway about the family’s home life and any conflicts or struggles that may be going on there.
The first steps the family takes to approach the media will colour the rest of story’s journey.
Questions to ask at step one
The best way to influence the media is to have a consistent, credible and colourful message that is available for reporters when they need. The first steps should be deciding on what that message will be and what tools do the family have available to deliver that message.
Questions to ask:
• Do we want media involvement? Will it occur regardless of our wants?
• Are the police involved? What information will the police give the media about the subject?
• Will there be facts that may shed a negative light on the subject (eg, sex worker? Yes or no?)?
• What image do we want to create of subject? How do we want to address negative message that may come out?
• Are there social media sources that the media can use to get pictures or information on the subject?
Choosing a spokesperson to represent the family may be a difficult decision, but it is an important one. The media will want someone who can deliver a clear message within a few sentences. The best spokesperson to choose is someone who is credible, who can deliver a message through the emotions, who can answer tough questions, and who is available frequently and at odd times for the media to access. By answering the questions above, and possibly even role playing as reporters, the spokesperson can have the answers on hand before the reporters ask them. Preparation is important.
While the spokesperson may want to show some emotion, ultimately, their job is to deliver the family’s message and an overabundance of weeping can get in the way of that. It will be good to have “criers” at press conferences and to even provide quotes for the media. The principle spokesperson for the family should be made clear to reporters and pains should be taken, by those who agreed on that spokesperson, to consistently use that person and direct media to them.
Lawyers, if available, may be those best capable of representing a family in front of the media during a crisis. Of course, they cost money and may not be an option. Religious leaders, community Elders, or family-associated officials may be other options.
Choosing that spokesperson may reveal conflicts or factions within the family involved or the people close to the issue. This can be a dangerous situation. Asking those involved, “I know you disagree with them, but is there someone on that side who you can respectfully work with?” may be the best course of action for the Indigenous organizations in these cases. Healing within the family should always be an aim of the Indigenous organizations and keeping an issue in the media will often create bruising, conflict, and pressure within a family.
Creating a bio
In the case of a MMIW, the family will want to create a message that puts the subject in the best light, while also dealing with the realities of the subject person. The message should be clear enough to deliver in a few sentences.
• Jane Doe was a mother for four and member of the Big Tree First Nation. She was in university, but was also interested in many of things her age are. We are not aware of her involvement in anything illegal or crime related.
• Jane Smith was someone struggling with addiction. As a family we reached out to her many times, but she choose to find her own solutions and wasn’t always successful. She did try to rehabilitate at organizations like Help-me Addictions Services.
The message should then be backed up with as little detail necessary to provide credibility. The bio will be longer than the message, but it should always keep that message-statement in mind. This first biography of the person will also include details like height, weight, hair colour, eye colour, last known location, and contacts for people to reach if they know any information.
The bio may also want to provide written quotes from the family. For example, if the family doesn’t want to talk to the media directly, the bio can contain a few written quotes from family that media could use. It may also want to address the message or detail delivered by police involved.
Social media may also be a source of pictures and information for the media. If these pictures show things like drug use, gang ties, alternative lifestyles or questionable activity, the family should be prepared for all this to come out. They may want to address it in their bio.
Providing pictures and video
The media will want visuals. All visuals should be clear, high resolution, and as current as possible. All visuals should contribute to the main message’s credibility (for example, no pics with beer in hand).
Getting visuals to the media can be important as they may fall back on using pictures that are made available by the police, which are usually mugs shots.
The family should be prepared ahead of time to see their pictures used with stories they may not agree with. Once given to the media there is not much they can do about that.
Social media may also be a source of pictures and information for the media. If these pictures show things like drug use, gang ties, alternative lifestyles or questionable activity, the family should be prepared for all this to come out. They may want to address it in their bio. If a family can shut down social media sites belonging to the subject that may be an action to take into consideration.
The press conference
For this section, I’ll assume the family has a local Indigenous organization available for a venue and the use of the their information and infrastructure to reach out to media.
On any given day, the best time to hold press conference is between 11AM to 2PM. This gives reporters time to sell the story to their boss, get their equipment and get to the venue. It also gives them enough time to go back to the studio to write, edit, and voice the story for that night’s newscast or publishing.
Press invites to the presser (press conference) should go out as early as possible, at least, before the end of the business day on the day before. Invites sent the morning of the presser, while sometimes necessary, will often not fit in to that day’s flow of news. Such disconnect at the start of the story can impact its placement within the news. Possibly, moving it from a front page story to a blurb at the back.
The bio should be printed and made available to reporters as they walk in. Instructions on how to access relevant visuals/pictures/links from the Indigenous organization’s website should also be made available. Contacts for the spokesperson should be made clear.
The spokesperson should be prepared with answers for the most likely-to-be-asked questions. One or two other family members may be available to provide a short statement, possibly to be an emotional appeal, but the spokesperson should be doing most of the talking for the family. In order to keep the message clear and concise the press conference should not be long. The more you give reporters, the more chance there is that they may go off message.
Try to get all questions out during the question period. Warn reporters they will not be able to scrum (crowd around subject and fire questions) the family, so questioning is appropriate during time available.
Remember spokesperson, these answers are perfectly acceptable:
• No comment;
• I’m just a spokesperson, so I’ll have to go back and discuss how we’d like to respond with the family;
• I don’t have any more information on that;
• We’ll try to get back to you on that.
Don’t be afraid to use them.
Other people will also be there of course. The Grand Chief and local leaders may also want to speak to the situation. They should be aware of the agreed-upon message and keep it in mind as they speak. At this time, it may be best to refrain from tying the situation to larger issues until more details regarding the situation are known. Keep it short and on subject; the family and this specific MMIW.
As the presser progresses, the family may want to notice which reporters are asking what, which reporters seem sympathetic to their message, and which reporters seem to be following their own agenda. This information may become helpful later on if the situation continues for some time.
The Situation Continues
Unfortunately, in many cases, the situation carries on beyond the influence of the first presser. Of course, pressure and emotional toll is building in the family and the community. It is at this time that the tools we worked on in the previous section become important when it comes to staying on message and keeping the situation in the media’s, and therefore the public’s, minds.
Negative Ripples
As reporters continue to flush out the story, their needs may change, and their intensity in following the story may be quite different, ranging from, “my boss told me to do this” to “I think this might be an award winner”.
Ultimately, a news venue and its reporters will re-enforce the perspective of the audience they’ve cultivated. For example, there will be reporters trying to support the idea that people who live “high risk lifestyles” are the masters of their own negative fate. On the other hand, there will be reporters that do just as much damage by trying to convince their audience that the subject shouldn’t be seen as anything other than a victim. Real people are not back-and-white creatures. Every woman is someone’s daughter and was once a child. They may also be an adult who made their own choices.
The stories produced by the media will give the family a good idea of the next set of questions the media may ask to further the story. The spokesperson may want to note these and work with the family to prepare answers. If the family was effective and honest in creating their original message statement, it may not need to be updated. At this time and into the future consistency of message will be important.
Identifying sympathetic and good reporters
By watching the results of the presser, the family can better understand which reporters and venues are sympathetic to their cause. Depending on how much conflict is involved in the situation, using sympathetic reporters to deliver information to the media is an option. However, bad stories should be expected, and shutting out a media venue may mean not reaching a large audience with the information that may locate a missing person.
As the story progresses into months, sympathetic reporters may be crucial to keeping the story in the media spotlight.
Screaming RACISM!
In the original presser and the following days or month, the question of whether racism is a factor in situation will come up. This should be handled very carefully by the Indigenous organization and family - the priorities of the family (finding their loved one) should be kept foremost.
Credibility is an important thing in dealing with the media.
Credibility will be crucial in delivering and getting the media to accept and use the family’s message throughout the story’s timespan. When you accuse organizations of racism, you will cause them to defend themselves. If the police force involved is accused of racism at the start of a case, it may influence their handling of the case over all, but it will certainly cause them to bring up facts and procedures in their defense. Once this conflict starts, whether justified or not, it will take the focus of the media off the subject at hand. While the search is still fresh, you may want to keep any concerns of racism out of the messaging unless it will specifically improve the actions of authorities at that time.
The very act of a police force providing any small evidence that refutes a family’s message will impact the family spokesperson’s credibility. Be screaming racism, you’ll be backing the police into a corner that will result in them defending their officers, their organization and their mandate. There will always be reporters who are always pro-police, not matter what.
If the issue carries on for months, revisiting the idea of charging some person or organization with racism may be revisited. But it is just a complicating factor at the start of a case.
Keeping situation in the media
As the media attention wanes from initial incident, it may be necessary to take action to keep the media interested. Reporters need to report on something and that something often needs to be current. By providing events and new information for the media to work off of, it is possible to keep them interested. Vigils, pressers with new agreements/partners/information, fundraisers, honouring feasts, and other such events can give the media a current subject to report on that are connected to the case.
The spokesperson may want to go back and speak to those reporters that seemed sympathetic or even those that wanted an award-winner of a story. Find out if they’re interested in revisiting the case or if there is another angle they could use to retell the story (deeper stories from family?). Building relationships with reporters will be important from the very beginning. Reporters have a job to do and will respond to being treated with respect. They will also respond to being treated disrespectfully and a reporter who is turned off will be hard to get sympathy from later.
Killing the Story
Sometimes, there may be a need to stop the story or have interest in the story slowly go away. For example, if a runaway has been found, it may not be healthy for the teen to return to high school if details of the case are still coming out in the media.
Respectful non-communication is the best way to end interest in a story. However, that will be difficult to do if other events or information is coming out relating to the case. If the issue of racism is brought up, this conversation may carry on outside of the family’s ability to influence a shut down or prevent details coming to light. The family should ask to be made aware of any police forces’ announcement concerning their case, hopefully, prior to the police sharing with media. This will give the family time to revisit their messaging and they will not be in a reactive stance.
The media is a tool that comes with its own interests and motivations. They do have access to large audiences, but they are creating a product, and will use the tragedies of regular families to build and sell that product. By creating a consistent message, and being aware that others will make up their own messages, a family going through a MMIW situation can use the media to help in the search for their loved one. Those people and organizations that want to help should always keep the future health of the family in mind when advising a family on media use.

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