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How, when and why CBC News investigates claims of Indigenous identity

how when and why cbc news investigates claims of indigenous identity

We use this editor’s blog to explain our journalism and what’s happening at CBC News. You can find more blogs here

Reporter Geoff Leo and the flagship investigative journalism program of CBC News, The Fifth Estate, reported today on the claims and contradictions of Indigenous identity made by singer Buffy Sainte-Marie over her long and much-celebrated career. 

Let me first acknowledge that the story may be upsetting and difficult to process for some of you. I want to explain more broadly what goes into these kinds of investigations. 

Stories that raise questions about a person’s Indigeneity require great care and nuance. Our journalists have reported on similar cases involving other notable people in the past. Inevitably, we get questions. What’s the bar?

As the CBC’s ombudsman noted in his annual report, issues around Indigenous identity and ancestry “can be remarkably complicated,” and “these types of investigative stories stir interesting ethical debates about how to weigh serving the public interest against fairness toward the individual at the heart of the story.” He encouraged us to keep the bar high.

We have.

Reporting on stories of false Indigeneity is very much in the public interest. Experts in the field have said time and again that failing to challenge false narratives is contrary to the principles of truth and reconciliation.

As I explained in my response to the ombudsman, CBC News covers all aspects of life in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. There is no doubt we have connections to many Indigenous communities, partly because CBC has made such coverage a priority and, through its journalism, has built trust and relationships.

These relationships, coupled with our previous work on false claims of Indigenous identity, have resulted in tips (far more than we report on), often from the very communities for whom the stories matter most. To ignore these tips would be a form of journalistic negligence, especially at a time when the question of Indigeneity is roiling through a number of Canadian institutions — from the arts and culture sector to government and academia. 

Every story is carefully considered before it ever gets to air or online. In deciding what stories to pursue, we ask ourselves a few key questions:

  • Is this a person of significant influence?
  • Has this person benefited from their claims of Indigenous identity?
  • Has this person shaped public perceptions of what it means to be Indigenous in Canada?
  • Has this person taken space or opportunities away from others who might rightly deserve them?

If that public interest bar is met, then we follow the facts where they lead us. We report what we have learned and put those facts into relevant context. We invite all parties to respond to questions and share their version of events. We don’t cast judgment, but rather allow the audience to decide for itself what it thinks based on our journalism.

Our reporting must always meet the core principles of our journalistic standards and practices: accuracy, balance, fairness and impartiality, to which we’re held accountable by the ombudsman. 

And we are always mindful of the impact our journalism has on people’s lives and reputations. We take that responsibility very seriously, no matter what the story, no matter who or what the subject matter.

The bar is high.

You can read Geoff Leo’s full investigation here. The Fifth Estate documentary will soon be available on CBC-TV, CBC Gem and YouTube. 

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