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Media symposium: Joining together for change

When Native peoples are discussed by others, it is rarely in human terms
and the one-dimensional portrait is hurtful. The viewpoints of American
Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are nearly always missing in
media.

We at Friends Committee on National Legislation believe it is time for
concerned citizens to take stock, examine the various elements of the mass
communication system, bring together a cross-section of influential people
(not just allies) and figure out ways for Native and non-Native leaders to
jointly monitor and influence media, public opinion and elected officials.

Working under the guidance of Native leaders, allies must put time and
effort into meeting with media decision-makers to insist on changes. One
goal is to encourage public education and another is to increase the
visibility of ordinary and extraordinary American Indians. As a lobbying
organization, we believe the ultimate goal is to create a broader and
stronger Native caucus on Capitol Hill that has support from the
electorate.

In his analysis, "In Punditland, a Little Imagination Could Yield Needed
Diversity," journalist Terry Neal criticized the limited roster of players
used on programs such as "Meet the Press" and on editorial pages. Bookers,
editors and producers claim they "can't find women and minorities who are
qualified to offer their opinions on news of the day." We at FCNL believe
viewers and readers benefit when commentators from many backgrounds analyze
issues and happenings.

Moreover, as Neal says, these exclusions curtail leadership development
because Sunday talk shows confer "power and authority upon those chosen" as
speakers, national experts, and repeat guests (www.washingtonpost.com,
April 4, 2005). Native experts rarely are utilized on network and cable
news shows. Celebrities of Native origin seldom appear on daytime and
late-night talk shows or in prime-time entertainment. Native issues are
missing in news coverage and legislative progress reports. Non-Natives also
are harmed by this neglect and by misinformation.

In many cases, the mainstream media ignore the principles (and legal
tangle) of tribal sovereignty, depicts diverse language and cultural groups
as homogeneous, overlooks families living in cities and embraces subtle
stereotypes. Here is its latest caricature, which is being heightened by
the daily coverage of the Abramoff scandal: Most tribes are rolling in
dough. This caricature is destructive and untrue, yet the average person
does not have the knowledge to challenge it and the media does not provide
such information or any legal or historical context.

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Too little news about the everyday issues of Native families gets reported.
The "Reading Red Report" analyzed mainstream news coverage by nine
newspapers with large circulations. The researcher found more articles
about American Indians than expected: from a low of 43 in The Wall Street
Journal to a high of 519 in The New York Times during a three-year period
(1999 -- 2002). However, many of the articles were about the same subjects
-- tribal casinos (145) and mascots (116). Although coverage of
reservations (225 articles) is appropriate, the report noted: "So many
stories were datelined Pine Ridge that a reader might not have realized
that New York City's 87,241 Native American residents make up the largest
urban Indian community in the nation."

Much needs to be aired. Much needs to be heard. We invite Native opinion
leaders to attend "Who Wants to Hear Our Story," a symposium to be held
March 2 -- 3, at the Wyndham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Communication
experts in messaging and influencing will lead participants in a
constructive, realistic examination of public versus indigenous perceptions
and basic facts. (See www.fcnl.org/nativeam/media_symp.htm.)

The new American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State
College is coordinating closely with us. Other key planners include staff
from the Native American Journalists Association, National Indian Child
Welfare Association and the National Congress of American Indians, as well
as individuals experienced in indigenous rights and programs.

To date, 19 national organizations are co-sponsoring; some are
issue-oriented (National Indian Council on Aging and National Indian Health
Board). Native-directed organizational sponsors include large, established
organizations (NCAI, Native American Rights Fund and First Nations
Development Fund) and comparatively small, newer organizations (National
Native American Families Together and National Urban Indian Family
Coalition). Ally groups (HONOR [Honor Our Neighbors, Origins and Rights],
American Friends Service Committee and FCNL) already in partnership with
Indian country are co-sponsoring, and faith-based organizations (Call to
Renewal and Interfaith Alliance) are supporting, this educational endeavor.
The National American Indian Housing Council and the National Council of
Churches, which has a huge reach, are committed to publicizing it. Among
many others, organizations such as Americans for Indian Opportunity and the
Institute for Tribal Government are providing speakers and moderators.

Members of the public and media can register for the media symposium on the
morning of each day of its presentation. An invitation-only session on
follow-up action will take place the afternoon of March 3; at that time,
monitoring and intervention activities will be organized. These may include
high-level meetings with mainstream media owners, managers, booking agents
and others in the communications field.

Patricia R. Powers is a lobbyist for Friends Committee on National
Legislation and director of the Native American Advocacy Program.