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Good news: Bad news is avoidable

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The Native American Journalists Association's 2007 Reading Red Report, released during its 23rd annual convention in June, studied mainstream news coverage of Native Americans. The report gathered reports from large newspapers with high concentrations of Indian readers - The Albuquerque Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Phoenix New Times, among others. NAJA's findings are encouraging. News gathering and reporting practices that generally portray Indian people and communities unfairly is decreasing. Large newspapers are covering Indian peoples with more fairness and intelligence than ever before, but stereotypes continue to exist. Occasional uses of terms like ''warpath'' and ''circle the wagons'' mar otherwise good stories. Still, it's a small step in the right direction.

While NAJA works to promote journalistic equity for Native people in mainstream media, the industry is increasingly dominating the marketplace of ideas, thus threatening everyone's best hope for achieving equality - participation in democracy. Tribal communities struggled for decades to establish their own not-for-profit newspapers, and radio and television stations. The struggle has paid off; and for better or worse, many are supported by public grants and community or tribal government funding. Among the notables are Lakota Communications, which operates Pine Ridge's KILI; Akwesasne Communication Society, managing CKON Akwesasne Mohawk radio; and Native American Public Telecommunications, providing AIROS and VisionMaker Video. It is unlikely these stations will ever be swallowed up by megacompanies like Clear Channel Communications, Time Warner or News Corp.

What of Indian newspapers and television? While indigenous peoples make small gains in the fairness of mainstream media coverage, mass consolidation of profit-driven media corporations is resulting in a systematic shutdown of independent sources of information. Our grandparents and our grandchildren need those open channels to understand what is happening to them and why. Mainstream media is failing to provide citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions, a critical aspect of democracy. Native journalists often struggle to decide whether to ''go mainstream'' or work in the Native press; the future of both industries must be a guiding factor.

As nearly every American, especially Native Americans, are touched by the diminishing free press, the movement is again building momentum. Veteran journalist Bill Moyers, addressing this year's National Conference for Media Reform, exposed the power of media monopolies. ''[V]irtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the company's share price,'' Moyers said. ''More insidiously, this small group of elites determines what ordinary people do not see or hear.'' It's no accident that stereotypes about Indians exist. They help to sell papers, movies, games and products.

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The Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised to provide major changes in the laws governing cable television, telecommunications and the Internet. Unfortunately, it did; a powerful lobby guiding both regulators and legislators helped open the floodgates for consolidation benefiting media giants. The law was supposed to serve the public, but instead had the reverse effect. It helped the wealthy and powerful gain more wealth and power. It did not promote more competition, increased diversity, or lower prices. In much of Indian country, restricted access to even basic phone service is the norm, and the consensus among tribal leaders has been that the digital divide has actually widened in the wake of the law's passage. Tribes cannot seize the social, economic, educational and cultural opportunities that new technologies offer when they are shut out of the process.

Addressing a lack of provisions for development in Indian country, the National Congress of American Indians in 2005 adopted Guidelines for Tribal Communications Public Policy Discourse to not only fill service gaps but to help tribes prepare for economic development opportunities. NCAI supports the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's telecommunications project, which aims to correct ''discriminatory, unsafe, and inadequate practices of telecommunications providers'' on the reservation. Each Indian nation and tribal community must address these problems to ensure members are able to join the informed public.

According to a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspapers have been the medium that provides a ''complete diet of news.'' However, nearly 65 percent of the stories analyzed in the NAJA report relied on ''non-Native sources for information about Native topics.'' Clearly, the diet is not complete. What is the best way to combat this conundrum? There is no obvious answer, but with the upsurge in both Native media and digital technology, one thing is clear: participation by Native people in the Native media will grow in importance in the coming years. We - tribal nations, Indian journalists and media consumers - can turn off the bad news and tell our own stories.