Journalistic advance trending backward

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A disappointing, if intriguing, bit of news this summer: the American
Society of Newspaper Editors' diversity report notes a decline of nearly 6
percent in American Indians working at daily mainstream newspapers. It
stands now at 295 (down from 313); and as Jodi Rave, national correspondent
for Lee Enterprises, pointed out in a recent column, among minority groups,
only the American Indian category declined.

The main minority gains in the daily press were made by Asian-American
journalists, although overall minorities continue to be underrepresented in
newsrooms at about 13 percent (just 7,267 out of a total 54,135) of total
personnel. Blacks can boast nearly 3,000 people, and Hispanics and Asians
another 4,000 between them, in newsrooms across America; but as always in
this sort of numbers game, the Native capacity to field professionals is
still negligible by national standards. Rave, one of the rare Native
journalists who comments often on Native issues, also observed that the
numbers (295): "include anyone who self-identifies as Native. That means
[that] they are Native if they say so. It doesn't mean they have a
meaningful cultural affiliation, or belong to a federally recognized
tribe."

As the ASNE study reflects, the effort to train and graduate American
Indians at all levels of journalism is a crucial imperative. In recent
years, Indian organizations such as the Native American Journalists
Association have been at the forefront of seminars and other programs to
encourage young Native people to join the profession. Along with the other
three national minority journalism organizations, NAJA has worked to
pressure national news organizations to affirm their commitment to
diversity coverage by hiring more minority journalists. The efforts to
train and develop young Native journalists has been completely commendable
But, as these results indicate, the endeavor to open up mainstream
publications has been slow going indeed, and is now moving backwards. These
days, Native students wishing to check out journalism have an annual
opportunity at the NAJA National Convention. Hands-on experience in
producing a daily newspaper, radio and television newscasts and a news Web
site become a challenge and a great learning lab as the nation's American
Indian journalists gather to debate and celebrate their profession.
Additionally, each year American Indian student members pursuing journalism
degrees at colleges and universities can apply for NAJA scholarships of
$1,000 to $3,000. Even high school students can engage the basics of news
writing and photojournalism by joining Project Phoenix, a unique journalism
camp that parallels the annual convention and produces a 12-page newspaper,
Rising Voices.

The efforts at NAJA and other journalism centers, such as Freedom Forum,
with its American Indian Journalism Institute, are ratcheting up the
opportunities for American Indians to be trained in journalism careers.
More than half of tribal colleges have journalism or communications units
or departments. Thus it is worth contemplating how, in the midst of such
wonderful training efforts, the numbers of Indians in mainstream newsrooms
is declining. What is it about the nature of the beast that keeps young
Native journalists (and minority journalists generally) at its fringes?

Of note, young Indian people with improved communications training are
increasingly landing jobs with tribal governments and in Native
institutions and associations, editing newsletters and working in public
information and public relations departments, although even in these Indian
venues, too often non-Native consultants are elevated to the detriment of
effective representation. Of note as well, articulation skills grow also in
Native Web sites, journals and other publications that continue to
proliferate, many with valuable if not widely disseminated information.

The explosion of interest and programs to train young Native journalists -
many of these seminars involve more than 25 or more students from various
states - is all to the good. We all want to see young Native people enter
the important professions and take their place in major institutions
according to their training, talent and experience. Equally desired, we all
want to see Indian people represented as much as possible in these centers
of information so that more realistic appraisals of issues of importance to
Indians get into the channels and news and opinion pages - in an
appropriate cultural tone.

Realistically, this is not always the case. Whether in fact Native
journalists can improve, temper or otherwise better inform of issues as
they pertain to Indian communities depends greatly upon the type of
publication and audience the journalist works for. Sometimes, perhaps more
often than not, an American Indian journalist may be almost entirely
defined for his or her journalist function and not at all for his or her
Native cultural and political competency. Of course, while the fact that
there are nearly 300 Native people in newspaper newsrooms in North America
is to be celebrated, all would like to see the numbers improved upon - and
most certainly, not moved backwards.

In a parallel vein, however, the question of impact by Native journalists
who work on Native issues in particular deserves attention. In line with a
recent study released by New California Media in June, increasingly large
percentages of American minority groups are turning to their own ethnic
media as their major source of news. They feel better represented by their
own ethnic media.

This dynamic also applies to Indian country. The existence of an Indian
country of tribal jurisdictions and territories within the fabric of the
American republic is not easily understood by the public at large. The
American Indian world urgently needs good, consistent and widely available
representation. Native media generally, and we submit this is also true for
Indian Country Today, has a long way to go yet to fully carry on the
information and analysis required to prepare and empower a well-positioned
Native population. Our dedication here has been to the proposition that an
indigenous or Native journalism, conceived as a way for Native communities
to receive an accurate and comprehensive information and commentary base,
is of crucial importance at this time in history.

We encourage all training, of course, and all opportunity for Native people
to achieve all that is possible in any profession, including media, gut a
clearly and strategically conceived, national-level American Indian
discourse, where the facts and realities of Indian community life are
projected and disseminated to accurately inform public perceptions, is
equally paramount.

The anti-Indian capacity of the national media eye is appalling to
contemplate. Here and there, examples arise where the clamor of organized
anti-Indian forces, by breaking into the constant media record, directly
influences legal policy. Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell teaches
constantly that members of Congress are severely impacted and guided by
their media interactions.

American Indian realities are remarkably easy to manipulate, to be
presented in ways that make the Indian leadership working to follow its own
logic of self-governance appear buffoonish, devoid of good intentions, even
hopelessly corruptible. This is not to say that such conditions don't exist
in certain instances, only that in this day and age the worst can be made
to represent the whole, in order to destroy the rights of the whole.

It is well and good for individual Indians to achieve at the highest
possible success, to be all they can be in their professions. We celebrate
Indian success everywhere. But the overarching moment in the public gestalt
- how whole peoples can be discarded by unilateral judicial and legislative
fiat - deserves all the serious attention it can get. The media generally,
the editors and main writers of all major newspapers and news channels,
need a huge dose of education on American Indian tribal viewpoints. The
range of issues facing tribal peoples is as promising as it is potentially
devastating.

Indian journalists, seasoned and fresh, on the outside or the inside of the
Indian country dialogue, have a huge role to play in how these currents
unfold. However, a listing of the relative handful of American Indian
journalists working for mainstream newspapers (now in decline) may no
longer be promulgated as a primary indicator of success by Indian
journalists. New strategies and new institutions are required to advance
the communications objectives of our nations and communities in these
increasingly dynamic times.