Flawed news coverage is always bad form, but the issues in Rapid City, South Dakota points out journalists are not understanding or mindful of Native American issues in stories or headlines.
In January, the Rapid City Journal ran a story about some children from the Pine Ridge Reservation being attacked by a crowd during a hockey game for reportedly not standing during the national anthem. The students were attacked with racial slurs, insults and had beer sprayed and thrown at them; the Journal headline on Saturday, Jan. 31 read: “Did Native Kids Stand for National Anthem?” The Journal editors have since apologized for the insensitive headline.
Granted, the newspaper did not condone the actions of people at the hockey game, they even ran a strongly worded editorial calling on people to stop racism. But, the headline was a serious lapse that fails to meet the standards of journalism and points out how thoughtless journalists can be if they do not understand a group of people.
Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) leaders said the regrettable headline represents one of the more troubling examples of irresponsible coverage of Native Americans in recent years.
“The headline fell short of the standards of responsible journalism, as it indirectly suggested that the elementary and middle school students could have been responsible for prompting the harassment,” a NAJA press release reads. “The headline was a result of phrasing that was not well thought out on the paper’s part, and outcry over the headline has been swift in the Rapid City region and beyond via social media.”
In its apology, Journal Executive Editor Brad Pfankuch said the paper “deeply regrets the pain caused by this headline” and said the staff have begun taking steps to responsibly address the situation.
“A justifiable anger has resulted from the headline that appeared in the Rapid City Journal on Saturday, Jan. 31,” Pfankuch said. “It is now abundantly clear that the headline about the National Anthem is troubling to this community and our readers.
“To some, the headline signified that there was a justification for the harassment of Native American students at the Rush hockey game on Saturday, Jan. 24. This was not our intent. There is no justification for such racist behavior. There can never be any justification for the appalling way those students and their chaperones were treated at the game.”
Pfankuch also noted the owner of the suite where the students were sitting, who was not at the game, received a death threat and the paper ran the story using an anonymous source to protect that person and their family. He said if the police provide names of the people responsible for the harassment, the paper will publish the names. Pfankuch also promised NAJA the paper will continue to aggressively pursue the story.
NAJA officers said they appreciate Pfankuch’s prompt attention to the issue and encourage the Journal to continue pursuing the story.
Rebecca Tallent is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Idaho and she serves on the SPJ Board of Directors as a Campus Adviser at Large.