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Feb. 24, 2020, 2:17 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Report for America will support 19 journalists to cover Native American communities

“You build trust through listening and through recognizing other people’s knowledge…In order to build trust, you have to believe what people tell you.”

It’s hard to say that Native Americans have, historically, gotten the kind of journalism they deserve. Mainstream news outlets typically pay them little attention, and when they do, indigenous people are more often the subject of reporting than its target audience. Less than one half of one percent of journalists at U.S. news organizations are Native, compared to 1.7 percent of the national population. And that’s not even to mention how Native Americans are portrayed in the limited coverage they do see.

But coverage of Native American and Indigenous communities in the United States is about to get a major boost, thanks to a new partnership between Report for America and the Native American Journalists Association to support 19 journalists in the next year. Report for America currently has 10 journalists covering Indigenous affairs and related beats and it plans to add nine more this year.

“The history of U.S. journalism is largely a history of neglecting and even harming Indigenous communities,” said Maggie Messitt, a Report for America senior advisor, said in an announcement.

The way that Report for America works is that newsrooms apply to receive a corp member with an application making the case for why they need another reporter and the specific beat they’d be working on. Once the newsrooms are selected, journalists can apply and indicate what their top newsroom choices are. Report for America pays for half of the reporter’s salary while the newsroom puts up the second half. Newsrooms have the option to fundraise half of their half, and RFA helps them do so.

NAJA president Tristan Ahtone (a former Nieman Fellow) said the partnership was born out of a relationship he already had with Messitt, who had asked him if NAJA could hold a training with some of last year’s corp members going into Indigenous communities.

That’s a service that NAJA routinely offers to news organizations, so Ahtone, a Kiowa tribal member, said they decided to standardize those trainings, work with editors hosting corp members on these beats, and offer check-ins with those corp members.

“Folks that are reporting in Indigenous communities just have a lot more stuff that they really have to understand than, like, dumping somebody into like a small town in rural Ohio where you can apply stuff that you already know,” Ahtone said. “The indigenous community requires a pretty strong knowledge of everything, from some fairly obscure federal laws to how different health care systems work. It’s just a massive amount of information that reporters really, really need to know to be able to do their jobs effectively.”

So if you’ve applied to Report for America’s open positions — like this one covering Native American issues in Riverside and San Bernardino — there’s a lot you need to know.

For one, there’s a long history of problematic reporting on Native American and Indigenous communities in the United States; Ahtone wrote about the subject for Al Jazeera in 2016:

It’s common for journalists to reduce indigenous people to one-dimensional characters caught between two worlds. In fact, for the press, it’s a tradition.

For almost as long as America has been a country, media has championed the image of the Indian on the edge of civilization, occasionally emerging from a teepee wearing face paint and jumping on the back of a horse, while eminent extinction looms in the distance like a dark cloud. That approaching destruction, and the statistics that make it so clear, has been printed, ad nauseam. But 240 years after America’s birth, us pesky Indians are still around.

Despite that fact — the fact that we indigenous people survive and thrive — the story mainstream media likes to tell is one of gloom, doom and loss. It’s as if the press was engaged in a group conspiracy to expedite the destruction of America’s indigenous people by ignoring their dynamic lives, voices, struggles and contributions.

Joseph Pierce, an associate professor at Stony Brook University and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, explained that Indigenous communities are poorly understood by mainstream media and in turn, poorly represented.

“Since the news is a type of knowing, a type of understanding of the world, it has often served the interests of settler colonialism, and it has also it has often served as a vehicle for perpetuating the stereotypes that have allowed for the dispossession of land, the removal of children, the development of boarding schools in the early 20th century,” Pierce said. “It’s ongoing to today with things like Standing Rock, for example, where the way that gets framed is according to settler, colonial understandings of land and property and of economics, rather than foregrounding indigenous perspectives of kinship and relations, which are very different ways of understanding what matters and how it matters.”

The Native American news ecosystem has a wide range, Ahtone said. There are digital outlets like Indian Country Today and High Country News (where Ahtone is associate editor of Indigenous affairs). There are some mainstream local and national news organizations with reporters specifically covering Native American issues, like The Seattle Times’s Lynda V. Mapes and the AP’s Felicia Fonseca (another former Nieman Fellow). Then there are tribal outlets like The Navajo Times in Arizona and Osage News in Oklahoma.

Many Native American tribes and governing bodies don’t have the same First Amendment-like protections, Ahtone said, which can make accountability journalism difficult to produce. And many tribal outlets are either created by or heavily reliant on the tribes themselves, which can keep the scope of stories limited.

“You have a situation where you have none of the money or support going into a tribal news outlet that needs to exist,” he said. “And the tribe sort of understands that it needs to exist to get information out to citizens. So the tribe will then take on the responsibility of doing that and, in that process, often clamp down on the stuff that’s going into that news outlets’ pages. It’s this weird thing where folks recognize how important it is to have reporters there, and then also a lot of officials being like, ‘Well, we don’t want to cover everything.'”

Native American communities have become accustomed to reporters parachuting in for a particular crisis or controversy and then leaving. Their experience with journalism gets tethered to scandal, which can make it hard for them to want to open up and trust a new journalist, Ahtone said.

“You need to be going to protests. You need to be going to weddings and funerals,” he said. “You need to be integrating yourself and introducing yourself to everybody there so that they know who you are. And I think this is just a good policy anywhere you’re reporting, but doubly so for an indigenous community that is used to being used, for lack of a better word.”

Pierced echoed that sentiment about the impact of understanding a tribe or tribal member’s perspective. “It’s not so much a question of being able to see yourself reflected accurately, which it is, but also to see yourself as being understood on your terms and the terms that are set forth by your community rather than by someone else who is always struggling to understand why you do the things that you do or why things matter,” he said.

The other big challenge, Ahtone said, is managing editors’ expectations. The news cycle often conflicts with the time constraints reporters face. They want to build meaningful relationships in communities and learn the rhythm of the tribe but an editor will enforce a deadline.

So what can reporters do to make their time count? There’s no secret reporting hack or trick. The key is really is just to listen.

“You build trust through listening and through recognizing other people’s knowledge,” Pierce said. “Talking with elders about history is history. It’s not like some tall tale. It’s not an opinion. Granting communities agency over their own stories has really broad impacts, not just on self-perception, but on history, on agency, on politics and culture. In order to build trust, you have to believe what people tell you. You have to be more dexterous with the way that you read what people are willing to tell you and what people are not willing to tell you because you may not be able to access all of that information.”

Photo of a Dakota Access Pipeline protest in Portland, Oregon, on Jan. 27, 2017 by Ian Sane used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 24, 2020, 2:17 p.m.
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