April 5th, 2012
News Coverage of Native Americans: It’s all about context
By Sally Lehrman
The New York Times recently produced several excellent, well-reported articles exploring residents’ concerns about crime and alcohol on Indian reservations. But for those who don’t get their Native news elsewhere, these are fine but dangerously finite offerings.
The strong dose of negativity drew a sobering response from 19-year-old Willow Pingree, who wrote in a comment on one article:
“I have lived on the reservation since I was born. I will be only twenty in July, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve seen my share of good and bad things on this reservation. Not EVERTHING about this reservation is bad. Sure there is a huge problem with domestic violence and alcoholism, but we try to work together as a community to fight it. We have not given up. … It is a sad thing that people are quick to judge about a place where they have not lived.”
Indeed, it’s far too easy for most of us to be quick to judge. Unless we’re American Indian ourselves, it’s quite likely that all we know or read about Indian nations points to hard times and hard lives.
News Only Focuses on the Negative
The “Indians, American” section in Times topics, plus a quick search on Lexis-Nexis for good measure, reveals a dearth of stories about anything other than troubling topics. Besides the crime and alcohol stories, so far this year readers have learned about a violent tribal power struggle, a cigarette tax fight, and a New York legislator who got into a fight in a casino. To be fair, a Mar. 14 Style piece discussed cultural appropriation and a January piece highlighted the Makah Indian Nation’s efforts to draw tourists to a their home, where the wind is “brutal” and the rain, ”relentless.”
Perhaps it’s unjust to pick on the New York Times. Native Americans rarely make it into the news anywhere other than the Native press, and when they do, the story is usually the same: crime, violence, alcohol.
Improve Your Coverage of Native Americans: List of Sources
We can all do a better job filling out a more balanced picture. For some leads and ideas, check out these news sites and blogs:
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee. She holds Santa Clara University’s Knight Ridder — San Jose Mercury News Endowed Chair in Journalism and the Public Interest. Sally is also an author and independent journalist who specializes in covering identity, race relations and gender within the context of medicine and science.