10/10/2012 01:13 EDT | Updated 12/09/2012 05:12 EST

Why Fort McMurray Hates Journalists


The title of this post isn't entirely accurate. Fort McMurray doesn't really hate ALL journalists, but there are a few that have made their way onto our list of most-hated visitors. It isn't that they are journalists, or that that they wrote stories about us, or even that they wrote negative stories about us. It's because they wrote their stories before they ever even set foot inside our municipality. It's because they came here with a story to tell (or perhaps sell, as the more salacious the more likely it will be sold to media outlets) and the story they had was very much predetermined and based on some very fundamental stereotypes of who we are.

It might sound like sour grapes but it's a bit tough to take when you read stories in the national and international media that you don't think reflect you. Oh, those stories might reflect an aspect of our community, and I don't deny that. But when a journalist comes here, spends 3 days, visits 5 bars, one strip club, and not one school, recreation centre, or sporting event, and then pretends to have written the definitive story on Fort McMurray people get a little irate. The temptation is to find out where the journalist is from and then go to their hometown and give it the same treatment. That doesn't solve anything, although it could feel pretty good.

Yes, we have bars and a strip club and you can find drugs here. We have all the issues every other community faces, some in larger measure simply due to our boomtown nature. But we also have so much more, a vibrant community that is culturally diverse. We have an arts community, a literary community, a sports community, and an education community - just like all the issues we share with other communities we share all their strengths, too. We are the same as everywhere else and yet we are unique, too, just like everywhere else. What we do seem to have more of than anywhere else, though, is journalists who come here with a very clear target in mind, and the target is us.

It's gotten to the point where people in this region are wary of journalists. I've had some visiting journalists comment to me that they were surprised at how reluctant people have been to speak to them, how they have expressed alarm at the idea of speaking to a journalist from the outside media. And my only response is "Well, if somebody came to your house, visited you, ate dinner with you, laughed with you, talked with you, and then went away and wrote a story about how filthy your house is would you throw open the doors to speak to them again?" And so yes, we are wary and suspicious and cautious, because we've seen this dog and pony show before, and we know the journalist rides away into the sunset on the pony while we are left looking like the dog.

In recent times some of us, like me, have taken a different tactic with visiting journalists. If I know of their arrival in advance I will contact them and welcome them with open arms, inviting them to accompany me to everything from school council meetings to trips to the grocery store. I want a shot at showing them another version of life here, certainly not the ONLY version but a version that is every bit as true and real as the version that takes place in the strip club and casino. And if I find them after they have published their salacious story I will counter their tired stereotypes with the story of my life here - and then I invite them to visit again, but instead of holding down bar stools I invite them to hold down a seat in my car as I show them another side to my community, the side they did not choose to reveal to the world in their story.

You see, there isn't a "right" or "wrong" story here - there are many stories, but only a very select few are the ones most journalists choose to tell. I suppose it's why so many of us who call this place home have chosen to start telling our own stories. We have decided to stop being the victims of drive-by journalism and instead engage in a little homegrown storytelling. In the end we don't really hate journalists - we just hate that little red target they seem to think is painted on our backs.