Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Alaska Public Media reporter Nathaniel Herz has done numerous stories on the fight against COVID-19 in Alaska in the past year.

His stories described historical pandemics that decimated Alaska Native populations, and the disproportionately high toll that COVID is taking on Indigenous peoples. He has reported on the tribal health system’s success in vaccinating tribal members despite logistical challenges.

Then last weekend Herz wrote and aired a story headlined: “Eligibility differences between state and tribal health systems frustrate some Alaskans waiting for vaccines.” The story said the Anchorage-based Southcentral Foundation was vaccinating people who work with Alaska Natives and for Native organizations. The story featured critics who said the Native nonprofit should instead be giving shots to more vulnerable groups no matter what their relationship with Natives.

Nathaniel Herz, Alaska Public Media, covers climate change, environment and government and politics for Alaska’s Energy Desk. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Public Media)

The reaction after the story was aired and then posted on Alaska Public Media’s web page was immediate and on social media dozens of angry responses were posted on Twitter and Facebook. In the sometimes hyperbolic and profanity-laden style of social media, people saw the story as horrible, divisive, super-biased, whiney, colonialist, and reckless.

If Southcentral should be sharing its allotment beyond its clientele, will the same demand be made to the Department of Defense to share its allotment beyond the military, asked one commenter. “Or is the criticism reserved only for the most marginalized in our community?”

The story “feeds into ill will against Natives in an already super racist state,” and non-Natives will use the views expressed in the story as a “justification to their racism” that “feeds into their own victimhood,” read other Tweets.

Vera Starbard, Tlingit and Dena’Ina Athabascan, an author and playwright, wrote in her Writing Raven blog that she was surprised to see what she called, “an absolute hit job piece of poor journalism published with a disgraceful slant toward how the system is failing the Anchorage community,” given the tribal health system’s success in getting people vaccinated.

“Except it’s not surprising. Any time Native people are perceived to be ‘doing better’ than the dominant group in Alaska, there will absolutely, without fail be a backlash from individuals or large groups about how it’s not fair,” Starbard said.

“Never mind that instead of highlighting the state’s failed responsibility to the Pacific Islander community’s risk, and ask why it was not reaching this community more, this media organization chose to place the blame on an organization that is already serving those outside of its founding responsibility – and seeking to do more,” Starbard said.

Efficiency of distribution

The Alaska Public Media story questioned how Southcentral was distributing vaccines.

“Anchorage’s main tribal health provider is vaccinating employees of its affiliated for-profit company and nonprofit organizations, and their household members, without regard to their race, age or vulnerability,” Herz reported. “That’s frustrating some of the teachers, people with underlying conditions and others enduring an excruciating wait for shots from state government.”

“Southcentral Foundation’s vaccination framework has the effect of skipping over groups that face higher risk levels,” the story read, such as grocery store workers, the elderly and South Pacific Islanders, who are disproportionately affected by COVID.

One reason that Southcentral even had such a choice was its efficiency in distributing vaccines.

The number of doses provided to tribal health organizations is based on the same formula the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to determine allotments to federal, state, and local governments. CDC considered 15 factors, including preparedness; critical populations; capacity for handling and managing the vaccine; and the number of providers to administer vaccinations.

While federal, state and tribal health systems are all limited by the number of doses allotted to them, the foundation has been able to get categories of people vaccinated more quickly than the state.

It has had teams calling tribal members to come in for their shots, which it’s dispensing at the rate of 800 per day. By Feb. 1, it had administered more than 10,000 doses.

The foundation’s first priorities were health care workers and Native elders followed by the American Indian and Alaska Native “customer-owners” it serves. Next it vaccinated other employees and customers’ household members. Then it opened appointments to people who work for or with Native people.

Southcentral Foundation had no comment on the Alaska Public Media story.

Alaska Public Media’s side of the story

Anchorage-based Alaska Public Media combines news stories of its own with those of reporters at public radio stations across Alaska, many of them located in rural communities that are as much as 75 percent Alaska Native. The resulting news shows regularly have Alaska Native issues in the forefront, and has for decades.

Alaska Public Media News Director Lori Townsend, said, “in the 18 years I’ve worked for the [Alaska public radio] network, I can think of no other time that we were accused of racist coverage by the Alaska Native community.”

Herz said the story was meant to prompt a conversation about the foundation’s distribution but erred in its presentation.

“...the story was framed in a way that was inflammatory and hurtful — and particularly to a lot of Native people but to plenty of white and non-Native people [too] — that didn't allow anyone to engage with its content and with the question that we were trying to raise. It just caused hurt and pain and confusion about why we would do something like this,” Herz said.

Speaking for himself and the two editors who worked with him from concept to completion of the story, Herz said, “we thought we were being sensitive ... we didn't appreciate how sensitive and delicate the conversations around tribal healthcare are, and just sort of how much work and labor and explicating and justifying Indigenous people have to do around their healthcare whenever the subject comes up.

“This was absolutely… a personal and professional and human failure on my part. And I take full responsibility for that,” Herz said.

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He said he and the editors “who considered ourselves to be sensitive and connected to the Alaska Native community and compassionate and aware of the sensitivity of these topics… had no sense of how the piece would hurt Alaska Native people, and how it would fail to connect with Alaska Native readers.” Herz said he and his institution are reflecting on the matter and are committed to making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Herz said, “the intensity of the reaction and just all of the different ways that people shared their feelings, I've never experienced anything like this in my entire life and it really hurt. But I am really hoping that this whole thing can be in the service of more responsible and complete and sensitive media coverage of Alaska Native people and really important personal lessons for me” and the institution where he works.

He also wrote an open letter of apology.

Townsend said a careful approach, talking through who should be in a story, and taking the time for careful editing is “so incredibly important. And having more diversity in our newsroom is crucial.” Herz said Alaska Public Media had already been taking steps to increase staff diversity.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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