Media coverage of La Loche was essential. And problematic

PROVINCE by Geraldine Malone

Photo by Chelsea Taylor

The eye of the world has been on a small northern Saskatchewan community that’s dealing with tragedy and grief. Media from across Canada and around the world descended on La Loche, a village more than 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, after shootings left four people dead and seven others wounded. One of the locations people were shot was at a school.

A teenager has been arrested and made his first appearance in court in Meadow Lake.

The northern Saskatchewan village, which borders the Clearwater Dene First Nation, has a population around 3,000 people. So when camera crews, news vehicles, and reporters came out in full force, the population boost was substantial and certainly noticed.

But it wasn’t just the extra bodies on the streets and cars on the roads. The media spotlight could have a much deeper impact on a community that continues to grieve.

After backlash over negative views of the community and a request for privacy during wakes, the mayor, Kevin Janvier, asked the media to leave.

Reporting On Tragedy

Chelsea Laskowski works for Missinipi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC Radio), which has an affiliate radio station in La Loche. She’s based out of Prince Albert, but a few days after the shootings was tasked with going further north to report for the radio network which specifically services First Nations and Métis communities.

“I don’t even know how to describe it. I am personally very analytical of things so I was always thinking of what kind of effect I was having,” says Laskowski. “I also didn’t want people to actually hate me.

“The week was just me trying to see what my limits are, trying to be respectful, but also making it known that I’m a local reporter. Our radio station broadcasts in La Loche every day.”

Laskowski’s articles quickly started circulating online because they were the first to address the one major concern of many of the citizens: why should they trust the media?

“At first, I thought everyone hated the media, but it wasn’t everyone who had felt that strong anger against media being present,” she says. “People’s grieving did seem to be affected by how this became national news.”

Laskowski hunkered down in the local friendship centre for nearly a week to report and file stories. She says it wasn’t easy, but eventually she began building a relationship with members of the community, local leaders, and the archbishop.

“I talked about how people have no reason to trust people coming in from the outside,” she said about the articles she wrote.

Laskowski saw many, but not all, media organizations and journalists being respectful toward the community’s need for space.

Journalists reporting on tragedies need to be aware of the impact they’re having, she says. And not everyone was.

“You’re affecting someone’s grief,” says Laskowski. “There’s no doubt, no doubt that people were impacted that media was there.

You want to do less harm than good and I truly learned that you care a lot more about these people when you remember what your roots are in moments like that,” Laskowski says.  “The reason I got into journalism, the reason I work for who I work for, is because I want to [explore] things that are important, that people should know about.”

One of the main problems was that the community knew this was just parachute journalism. A lot of the news organizations only stopped in to report on the tragedy, point out issues in the community, and then leave.

Laskowski said that’s probably why MBC was the only media invited to sit in on one of the victim’s wakes.

“I don’t think any other reporter would have been able to do that because of the brush we’d all be painted with. There is an implicit trust with being a local media agency,” she said.

The hope of the community, and the hope of Laskowski, is that the national media attention means politicians will be held accountable for promises made such as more mental health services and better infrastructure.

But there is the fear that like much of the other national news, it will fade into the background.

Media And Trauma

Only hours after word of the tragedy made its way through the province, Duane Bowers was making his way north.

Bowers is a counsellor from Washington who was in the province to lead some training sessions. When the news broke, the provincial government sent him to the small village instead.

Bowers works in trauma, often in situations where the media is involved. When I ask him how media coverage impacts the response to trauma, he says I’m one of few people who have ever asked.

“It’s unusual that media people even see themselves as potentially adding to the trauma,” he said.

Unfortunately, that is a very real thing that happens.

“We joke about media being the people you love to hate and hate to love. You need the media there to report so that the funding comes in and the attention is on what’s happening, but at the same time they tend to be so invasive to get the story that they add to the traumatic reaction of folks,” he said.

Bowers says he saw journalists in La Loche get turned down for interviews by adults. “They started catching kids walking down the street and questioning them,” he says.

Obviously, a community’s concern for children is high after a school shooting. “Now a stranger is going up to their kid and cornering them. Do you think that’s going to increase the traumatic reaction? Absolutely,” he says.

One of the symptoms of a traumatic response is a negative world view, and in this situation, says Bowers, the media emphasized struggles in the community.

“They were so tired of their town being portrayed as negative in every media story. It was this poor little town — poverty, suicide, drugs, alcohol, everything that was used to describe this town was negative. There was no positive reported,” Bowers says, adding he met many residents who had turned their lives around over the past few years.

“All they see on the media, that this is what all of the world is hearing about them, is negative.

If I’m struggling here and all the world sees of me is a negative view, then what will that do to my self-esteem? What will that do to my pride in my town?

“So, yes that’s going to add to the traumatic response as well,” says Bowers.

At the same time, Bowers says the community recognizes it as a “double-edged sword”. They need the media to hold political promises to account, but they also need normalcy and space to grieve.

In the wake of this tragedy, he hopes the media can take away a few lessons so that maybe the next time they have to go to a northern community they won’t get kicked out. The first takeaway is that media organizations should try to employ Indigenous journalists.

“It’s hard to teach someone the cultures and the value of a people, you can’t teach that stuff,” he says.

The second lesson is training on traumatic response and just some simple empathy.

“What is this person in front of you going through? What does a traumatic reaction mean? What is going on physically in their body and their brain? So they can understand why they may be responding the way they are and know the kinds of questions to ask to be sensitive to what is going on,” says Bowers.

“If you can’t be culturally adept you can at least be adept to what is going on trauma-wise.”