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Media biases alive and well in 2008

WASHINGTON – Being mistreated in the mainstream press is nothing new to many American Indians and tribes, and 2008 continued the trend.

The Native American Journalists Association, which has long noted the problem, in July released its latest Reading Red report. Cristina Azocar, former president of NAJA, said the most important finding from this year’s report was when there are more American Indians in a community, there tends to be better coverage of their issues by press in the area.

As a result of a two-year study, NAJA found that coverage in areas with large numbers of Natives tended to be more neutral in tone regarding Indian issues. NAJA officials are encouraged that in these coverage areas, too, there tended to be large amounts of articles focused on Indian education and health.

But even in these better coverage areas, more than 75 percent of sources relied upon and quoted in the media were non-Natives. Azocar, a member of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe of the Powhatan Nation, said it’s important for journalists to reach out to Indian sources when writing about Indian issues.

In 2002 and 2003, NAJA conducted the first Reading Red reports to examine mainstream news coverage of American Indians. They found that large mainstream media outlets often do a poor job at covering and focusing on Native topics.

Those findings still appear relevant, especially in light of recent articles and TV reports from mainstream media outlets. The grand opening of the new national media-focused Newseum in April signified the problem on a macro-level, according to some Native journalists.

As ICT reported, the $450 million museum, located in the heart of Pennsylvania Avenue, contains exceptionally few representations of the Native press, especially in comparison to the museum’s presentations focused on other minority media in the country.

“It sounds like we once again got shortchanged,” said Denny McAuliffe, founder of Reznet student journalist Web project and a member of the Osage Tribe of Oklahoma, upon reviewing ICT’s findings.

The New York Times also shortchanged Indians in a couple of instances this year. In a May 27 column in the newspaper, cultural critic Edward Rothstein misinterpreted the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and raised questions about the offerings of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Leaders with NMAI have long questioned Rothstein’s motives when he turns his pen to Native museums, especially those that involve collaborations with contemporary Indians. NMAI director Kevin Gover said there’s no way to know for sure why Rothstein continues to have a beef with the museum.

Later, during the height of the 2008 presidential election, the Times published an investigative report that amplified misperceptions about tribal casinos, according to tribal officials and others familiar with American Indian gaming.

“For ‘Average Joe,’ [the article created] a perception that Indian gaming is happening on the magnitude where all tribes are hiring million-dollar lobbyists,” said W. Ron Allen, who serves on the NCAI executive board and is chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“There’s a lot more to this industry than the scandalous, seedy side, which seems to be attractive to many mainstream reporters. …”

In December, CNN aired and published what may be the most egregious act of misinformed mainstream Native-focused journalism. One of the network’s anchors, Campbell Brown, presented a commentary, in which she called the Indian Child Welfare Act a “ridiculous” law. She also implied that Native families are weak.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Congress of American Indians and NAJA all told ICT that Brown’s characterizations were out of bounds.

“For CNN to endorse an ill thought-out commentary, I think is highly irresponsible,” said Terry L. Cross, the Seneca director of NICWA. “We certainly would like to try to educate CNN – we want fair and honest treatment.”