Mainstream Media’s Spotty Coverage of Native America

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Joshunda Sanders
August 29, 2012

Graphic by Roberto Delgado

Other than stories about poverty and crime on reservations, mainstream media coverage of Native Americans and issues they confront is often steeped in stereotypes that portray Indians as lawless and living in the distant past.

While large media outlets such as The New York Times and The Associated Press sometimes have the resources to research and produce comprehensive stories, Native Americans must rely largely on tribal newspapers and alternative outlets for content about themselves and their communities.

Mary Hudetz, a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana, an AP editor in Phoenix and a board member of the Native American Journalists Association, says lack of time and resources at media outlets contribute to fewer stories about Natives. In particular, she cites lack of reporting on how health care reform will impact them and lack of reporting in general, particularly in Indian Country and on reservations.

Moreover, Hudetz says, the mainstream media largely handle tribal governments gently, in part because the open-government laws that allow reporters to hold entities accountable don’t apply to sovereign tribal governments. “The freedom of information laws aren’t there, or they’re not as strong,” Hudetz said in a phone interview, “so that’s one reason there isn’t as much coverage.”

According to the U.S. government’s Federal Register, 565 entities in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska are “recognized and eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs by virtue of their status as Indian tribes.” The 2010 U.S. Census counted 2.9 million people who were Native American and Alaska Native only, and 2.3 million who were Native American and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races.
In the absence of regular media coverage, “There’s this misconception that reservations are very dangerous places, like it’s lawless and everyone’s a victim,” Hudetz says. “That comes from the fact that there are huge gaps in the justice system that are supposed to protect Native Americans living on reservations.

“The lack of context is more of a problem than the misconception. There are triumphs and tragedies on reservations, but somehow only the tragedies come out.”

Hudetz applauds efforts by the AP and The New York Times to cover stories such as tribal elections. A few outlets remain committed to covering every development of a case instead of “parachuting in, doing a take, then leaving,” she says.

In tribal communities with their own newspapers, the impact of no coverage of daily life and challenges facing Natives is less problematic. When those communities don’t have their own media, Hudetz says, “People have no idea how their money is being used or what type of resources are available to them. So, as is the case when you mix money and power, I can only imagine that there might be a misuse of funds.”

Gerald Torres, a race theory expert and the Bryant Smith Chair in Law at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Native law, wrote in an email that the impact of no coverage fuels the perception “that Indian life and culture is somehow frozen in time, or that the high unemployment rates and rates of substance abuse are endemic to tribes and somehow unconnected to the policies that have ordered tribal life.”

Torres and Hudetz say news organizations could improve coverage by hiring more Natives. Hudetz, for instance, is one of two Natives in her newsroom in Phoenix. In its 2012 census, the American Society of News Editors reported that 132 Natives were employed in newsrooms, or .33 percent of the total number of people of color in newsrooms.

“We tell the hard stories about high suicide rates and a lack of law enforcement to deal with crime, but we try don’t just use a broad brush on those stories,” Hudetz says. “We try to show the full picture of what the reservation is and get all the different aspects of what it’s like to be American Indian into stories. I guess that’s probably an issue that a lot of groups face.”

Mark Trahant, board chairman of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho, says the need is probably most dire in broadcast television news, where representation of Native Americans is largely absent. “In terms of missing stories, I think network television,” Trahant says.

Hattie Kauffman, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho and the first Native network television correspondent, was laid off in 2010 when CBS overhauled its “Early Show,” leaving a void for Native voices in major network television.

“What really makes the Native American story complicated is that it’s not just one about race but one of citizenship,” Trahant says.

Although tribal governments were the first established in the United States, Trahant says very few people are educated about how those governments work. When the base of institutional memory is zero, “it’s hard to build from that,” he says. “Very few people are taught in school how tribal government fits into city, state or federal government, so the task is left up to media to provide that education.”

Native Americans are roughly 1 percent of the population, which might be a reason for the continuing absence of coverage. “For the most part, Native American stories are nonexistent, and when they are, they’re usually stereotypical — poverty in Pine Ridge and extreme wealth from gambling,” Trahant says. “There are variations of those two themes. When networks parachute in, they go to South Dakota and the Navajo Nation. A big one was Diane Sawyer’s piece on Pine Ridge.”

For an episode of ABC’s “20/20” called “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains,” Sawyer spent a year reporting “on life in one of America’s poorest counties,” as ABC’s website put it. The report aired on Oct. 14, 2011, and the segment was titled “The Dreamers and Survivors of the Pine Ridge Reservation” in southwestern South Dakota.

In a report about the segment the next day, Vincent Schilling wrote for the Indian Country Today Media Network, “. . . In Sawyer’s documentary, many of the American public learned for perhaps the first time about the poverty and living conditions typical of many Native American reservations.

“The program showed adults struggling with alcoholism and obesity, and children packed into crumbling government housing with no heat, crumbling ceilings, black mold and floors looking as though they might collapse at any moment. According to many comments online, Sawyer’s coverage only scratched the surface of the world of the Pine Ridge reservation.”

Jodi Rave, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, is publisher of a Native news and opinion website named Buffalo’s Fire. In an email, she wrote:

“Each year, there tends to be a national story about poverty and despair at Pine Ridge. Yes, there is all that but there is so much more to life on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Native America in general. We have some strong and powerful spiritual leaders in all our communities. We also have some amazing young people living good and healthy lifestyles. Let’s make it a point to get those stories in the paper.”

Trahant says some media organizations do a respectable job covering Native issues. On Aug. 15, for instance, The New York Times published an extensive report on potential oil production on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana on the Canadian border.

Trahant says The Seattle Times, where he worked as a columnist, also does a good job covering Indian Country in the Pacific Northwest. Generally, when stories about Native life are absent from national media, he says, “it means that we’re just missing from the national conversation.”

Trahant and Hudetz say it has been empowering for tribes to create their own alternative news sources.

These include FNX First Nations Experience, which is a public television station based in San Bernadino, Calif., and a multimedia partnership between the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in Highland, Calif., and PBS.

In Anchorage, the nonprofit Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, owned and operated by Alaska Natives, produces national radio programming, including “Native America Calling,” a live call-in program that links public radio stations via the Internet and is known as the “national electronic calling circle.”

In Lincoln, Neb., Native American Public Telecommunications “works with Native producers to develop, produce and distribute educational telecommunications programs for all media including public television and public radio,” according to its website.

Rave says mainstream coverage lacks three-dimensional positive stories about Native life and misses important, timely stories that will impact Natives in the long term. She notes, for instance, that while Natives have some of the nation’s lowest voting turnout rates, she has seen no mainstream media coverage about the Native vote.

“We don’t see ourselves nor our issues reflected in the media, so why should we vote?” she wrote in an e-mail. “As Native communities, we are left to rely on social media venues to stay updated on our news. While social media outlets can meet some of our news needs, ultimately, we must have news content from sources we can trust.”


Amen to all that, and more

As the author of Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans, which I was certain mainstream media would embrace --- since there is nothing like it, since non-Indian America is as ignorant as I once was --- I have been surprised that reaction there has been ho-hum, at least so far. (We'll see what happens when the paperback comes out in October.) Media coverage in Native publications, however, has been TREMENDOUS and a surprise, too, but a most welcome one.

Toolkit for covering Native American news

Journalists who cover Indian Country may want to check out "Reporting in Indigenous Communities," an online resource with tips and advice:

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