Black and White and Red All Over

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Four Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) members compiling last summer’s “Reading Red” content analysis of how the nation’s largest newspapers covered American Indians found that most stories fell into predictable categories such as reservation affairs, casino gambling, sports mascots, or entertainment. But almost every paper also published articles about American Indian topics that were so odd that the journalists created a separate category: “Curious.”

Among those cited were a Chicago Sun-Times story about “Native Wisdom” in weather prediction; a Newsday article about alleged cannibalism in Indian ruins that failed to cite contemporary Native

American skeptics; and a Los Angeles Times story about a high school athlete whose death was “blamed on Red Cloud’s alleged practicing of bad medicine,” under the headline “Little Big Rivalry.”

How newspapers cover Indian Country is an increasingly important ? and sometimes contentious ? issue for several reasons.

For one thing, Native issues are now local issues for many communities. The most obvious example is the widespread introduction of tribe-run casino gambling, with all the attendant debates about revenue distribution and social costs. There are numerous other issues, however, ranging from tribal claims to land sold generations ago (in violation of treaties) to a lawsuit over alleged mismanagement of the federal Indian trust fund that could leave taxpayers on the hook for $10 billion in compensation.

But when it comes to Indian Country, the NAJA report concluded, too many journalists “rely on their elementary school lessons to inform them about Native Americans today.” That’s especially true when big papers reported from reservations: “At best, they provided information about communities many readers know little about. At worst, they reinforced stereotypes about barren landscapes, family feuds and poor yet mystical people, the kind you might see in an old episode of Northern Exposure.”

At the same time, the NAJA report also found numerous examples of sophisticated coverage that explained complex tribal sovereignty issues, explored the diversity of Indian Country ? and treated Native Americans “as people rather than historical figures.” Even the cringe-inspiring articles mostly emerged from a kind of wrong-headed empathy that contrasted with past decades when newspapers either ignored American Indians, or “told one-sided stories steeped in stereotype and racist innuendo,” the report said.

You’re in Indian country

Coverage of Indian Country is also changing as the Native press, whether independent or tribe-owned, become more professional and assertive in their own reporting ? and challenge local dailies and weeklies for readers.

That was clear, for example, in the comments from Navajo Times Publisher Tom Arviso, Jr., just after the Navajo Nation’s Tribal Council voted nearly unanimously last fall to allow the paper to become an independent private enterprise. Arviso said he would like some day to return the 22,500-circulation weekly to daily publication, to compete with the Gallup (N.M.) Independent.

“They do a good job of making money off of Navajo misery,” Arviso now says. “That’s an issue throughout Indian Country… In the border towns around reservations, there’s a lot of sensationalism in the coverage of the local community papers.”

That’s not how editors and staff at the 16,616-circulation Independent see their news coverage. “It’s just not true,” says Jim Maniaci, one of three reporters assigned full time to the Navajo reservation. Navajo reader reaction to the paper’s coverage, he says, follows a pattern familiar to any daily: “When you report some nice feature, they’re happy, and when you expose some shenanigans, they’re not happy.”

However its coverage is evaluated, the Gallup paper is an increasingly typical example of the resources newspapers that circulate near reservations and other American Indian communities are devoting to Native American coverage. The Independent has invested heavily in the coverage of tribal people in the area, says Editor Darryl Beehner: “We have someone that covers all the council meetings, we have reporters covering environmental and health issues. We place a lot of emphasis on Indian affairs.”

But if there is one factor that has most changed newspaper coverage of Indian Country for the better it’s the entry of Native American journalists into the mainstream press, says Mark Trahant, a Shoshone-Bannock who was editor and publisher of several tribal papers and now is editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Those numbers have gone from virtually nothing to fairly significant,” he says.

According to the most recent American Society of Newspaper Editors census, there were 289 Native American newsroom employees, or about one-half of 1% of all journalists in daily papers. The Freedom Forum Neuharth Center at the University of South Dakota is working to increase those numbers by offering Native college students a three-week journalism education program, with tuition, room and board provided free. About 25 students go through the American Indian Journalism Institute each June, and nearly half go directly to paid internships at daily papers for the balance of the summer.

Just as important is where Native journalists are working, Trahant says: In Spokane, in Portland, in Phoenix, in places near Indian Country where Native journalists “can reshape the coverage… and when there is so enormously complex an issue (as tribal sovereignty), you have someone to say there’s a long history here, and people can explain the history.”

A clash of cultures

The mere fact that mainstream newspapers are now paying attention to American Indian communities is worthy of note, say Native journalists and academic specialists. NAJA’s “Reading Red” report says an appropriate headline for its content analysis would be simply: “Today U.S. newspapers cover Native Americans.” That alone, the report adds, “would denote significant progress over past decades.”

But the next step for newspapers may be the most difficult to navigate because Indian Country can present an unfamiliar geography of unspoken cultural norms, knotty legal issues ? and a distinctly different sense of the past. “There’s an old saying that it doesn’t matter when something happened, it matters that it happened,” Trahant explains.

The long view, of course, is not newspaper journalism’s strong suit. Consider the issues of tribal sovereignty that are at the root of why some tribes can offer casino gaming and other gambling, or hunt whales or practice other traditions. “Sovereignty issues are so complex that they really don’t get good coverage,” Trahant says. “This is something that takes a long time, and that is not what we are good at. Our best work is covering stuff that happens in a single episode.”

Mary Ann Weston is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who has written extensively on the history of media coverage of American Indians. It’s a story of newspapers on both sides of the reservation boundary hampered by culture.

“Community papers historically have often covered all the bad news of the reservation because that’s the traditional role of the mainstream press,” Weston says. “And it’s easy to cover crime, social dislocation, and poverty. So it’s really easy for the community papers to see all the deficits and none of the strengths.” Local papers often reflect stereotypes about American Indians that may well be “hard-wired” in the national psyche.

Papers produced on the reservation, she adds, “have another set of issues, and one is often independence. Tribal governments say, ‘Hey, if we’re paying for this paper, it should tell the good news about this tribe and not the bad news. We don’t want to wash our dirty laundry in public.’ Of course, that’s not just true about the Native community, but of just about any community you can think of.”

Off the reservation, old stereotypes of dirt-poor Indians clash with scattered examples of casino-fed wealth. “And it’s like it’s not OK for Indians to be rich,” Weston says. “(Newspapers) continue to look at all the problems gaming may bring, and not all the good things, the economic growth. Tribal governing bodies see themselves ? particularly in regard to gambling issues ? as under attack from the larger community.”

That’s the way coverage too often looks to the Oneida Nation of New York, which over the past two decades has prospered economically with a casino, golf resort, and other enterprises, says tribal spokesman Mark Emery. When they think of Indian people, “many reporters think of poverty, and they equate poverty with tradition,” he complains. ” Well, we have people who take strong issue with that, who say you can be highly successful and yet highly traditional. The Oneida remember that when they were in poverty, nobody paid any attention to them at all. Nobody covered them, nobody did anything at all.”

Covering the Oneida has not always been easy for surrounding newspapers. Twice in the last decade, the tribe prohibited reporters at The Post-Standard in Syracuse from entering its territory or interviewing its members. “The problem there was more about the coverage out of one of the bureaus that was always looking for a negative angle,” Emery says. Though the same reporters are still covering the Oneida, the relationship is much better now, he adds: “Sometimes time heals things.”

In fact, Emery says, the Post-Standard, along with The Associated Press, provide some of the best coverage of the tribe because they assign experienced journalists. “The problem with many of the smaller papers around here is that there’s a constant turnover of people and it’s a continual educational process. There’s much more stability at [the Post-Standard].”

Shaun T. Koh was an experienced foreign correspondent when he became city editor of The Oneida (N.Y.) Daily Dispatch, a 6,859-circulation daily. He says the pressure imposed by Oneida Nation officials when they objected to a story reminded him of being back in Singapore. Form letters, often starting out “Shame on you,” would be followed by meetings with editors, and sometimes with threats to pull advertising or bar reporters, Koh says. “Covering the Oneida, it’s tricky from a journalistic perspective… Having covered third-world countries, I thought I was back there. You have to be extremely sensitive,” says Koh, who is now city editor of the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune.

For some papers, the arrival of a tribe-owned casino or other gambling facility prompts the assignment of a Native American beat. But for others, gaming and other tribal enterprises are best covered as any other local business.

That’s the approach the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y., has taken to the new Seneca Nation-owned casino, which opened one year ago in the giant old convention center nearly across the street from the newspaper office. “A year ago we did a tab section on the history of the Seneca Nation,” says Night City Editor Rick Forgione, but the casino is covered “more like a business or development issue.” That issue is heating up again, as the Senecas plan to build a huge new hotel linked to the casino, alienating some other downtown businesses.

Patience, patience

Oneida spokesman Emery says the most important asset a reporter needs on the Native American beat is knowledge of Indian issues, but the Post-Intelligencer’s Trahant says there’s something even more fundamental needed: patience. “Take time to learn the community first, without writing about it,” he says. “So often stories are generated by just hanging out. The relationship between Native peoples and the press is broken or non-existent in some places, so it helps to have someone from the community, whether they are Native American or not.”

Newspapers covering the “Rez” also need to understand that the same event can have different meanings to a journalist and a Native reader, says Navajo Times Publisher Arviso: “It’s hard for (non-Native) reporters to understand what (a news event) means from a tribal standpoint. For instance, a liquor license transfer. What that means to Native people and what it might mean to the Gallup newspaper are totally different things.” Not understanding different cultural approaches to death, too, can strain the relationship with the press, he says.

Gallup Independent reporter Maniaci, who covers the Navajo Nation’s central government in Window Rock, Ariz., says cultural issues such as the efforts to preserve the Navajo language are important stories for the paper. From time to time, in fact, participants in open public meetings will talk in Navajo. That’s never a reporting problem, Maniaci says: “Usually, somebody will tell me what they said, plus all the minutes are in English. Navajos are a very open people, in contrast to a lot of tribal governments that are very secretive. All the meetings are open, and there’s a lot of transparency.”

One language reporters do need to learn on the reservation, Maniaci suggests, is the legal lexicon of tribal sovereignty, which is “a constant, constant” reporting topic, especially since contractors from outside the reservation frequently try to get immunity from the Navajo’s well-developed court system.

Earning trust in Sioux Falls

Newspapers do not need to abut a reservation, however, to provide excellent coverage of Native American issues. The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls is about as far as a newspaper in South Dakota can get from the massive reservations in the Plains state. Yet, Native American coverage is “one of the four cornerstone topics” of the newspaper, says Executive Editor Randall Beck.

“One obstacle to the coverage for us, quite honestly, is distance,” Beck explains. “For us, it’s a long trek to Rosebud or Pine Ridge (reservations), which are not technically in our coverage area. So our reporters and photographers need to be willing to invest time.”

More important, though, is the time spent “earning a level of trust” not just with tribal leaders, but ordinary folks, Beck says. “Indians sort of have the perception that the white man’s media is going to parachute in and do another woe-is-me story about alcoholism or poverty… That kind of shallow journalism has sort of alienated a lot of Native Americans, certainly in this part of the country, and I think justifiably so.”

In December, the paper finished up a year-long project on American Indian affairs by publishing the last of six special sections on the Sioux. The series, coming on the 30th anniversary of the siege on American Indian militants on the Pine Ridge reservation, included sections devoted to economic development; tribal schools and education; the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre; and language and cultural issues. The paper partnered with the University of South Dakota on the series and included a CD sent to all high schools in the state.

Establishing credibility has been “a long pull” for the Argus-Leader, Beck says. “It’s taken years to earn it, and we need to show consistency,” he adds. “We need to show them ? and Anglos ? that we’re interested in covering Native Americans just like everyone else, that while their lives can be different, they have hopes and dreams, too.”

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