Indigenous news outlets and nonprofits provide deeper coverage

Indigenous news outlets and nonprofits provide deeper coverage

Phoenix (AFP) – Kiowa member Tristan Ahton remembers getting started in journalism over a decade ago and brainstorming on Indigenous topics. His superiors would say things like, “We published a story about Aboriginal people earlier this year. Do we need another one?”

Fortunately, times have changed, he said.

“Right now there isn’t enough content to fill the demand, which is great,” said Ahton, a former board member of the Association of Native American Journalists and current editor at large for nonprofit media outlet Grist.

Native American communities have experienced more robust news coverage in recent years, due in part to increased Native American affairs reporting positions in American newsrooms and financial support from foundations.

Philanthropy focused on journalism quadrupled from 2009 to 2019 as revenue from traditional newspapers shrank, according to a Media Impact Funders report. At the same time, growing population diversity and a renewed focus on social injustice has captured even greater media attention.

Nonprofit news outlets, which have doubled across the United States, are among those leading the way.

Colorado-based High Country News set up the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs in 2017, which has published dozens of stories from journalists, authors and experts from all over India.

Other non-original outlets followed with new beats and staff.

The National Service Program for America Report provides funding to several media outlets, including the Associated Press, and helps fund interim reporting jobs on Indigenous affairs for 10 US newsrooms. They are part of a group of journalists the organization has founded in recent years to promote coverage of underserved communities.

The program addresses some of the unique challenges related to coverage of the Indian state, where many reservations or historically poor relations with the press are isolated after a long period of misrepresentation or disregard.

“We are trying to rebuild trust that has been lost in the past 20-30 years,” said Terry Height, deputy director of corporate excellence and director of the Mountain West America region. “It’s about rebuilding it and putting talented, emerging journalists into the newsroom.”

Some of the news organizations they collaborate with did not have views dedicated to Native American affairs. Many members of the corps identify as Aboriginal. Among them is Frank Weisvilas, a descendant of the Yaqui tribe in Mexico who serves as a Native American affairs reporter for the USA Today network based in the Green Bay Press-Gazette in Wisconsin. It started covering 12 tribal nations in the state in 2020.

“There is a lot of education that goes on with that rhythm,” he said, including helping people understand the nuances of sovereign states.

Vaisvilas reported a land dispute involving Oneida Nation and the Green Bay area village of Hobart, harassment of Ojibwe spearfishers over treaty rights, and the suspension of tribal officials by the Menominee legislature. His stories include discussions of tribal laws, jurisdiction, gambling, languages ​​and a host of other issues, and he also produces a Wisconsin First Nations newsletter.

Historically, he said, major news outlets tended to rely on tropes like poverty and addiction when covering Indian Country. Weissvilas said he works to “search for the truth that exists and not just feed stereotypes”.

The increased coverage comes as the demographics of America change. According to the latest census, the growth in the number of people identifying as multiracial increased from less than 3% to more than 10% of the US population from 2010 to 2020. Of these, about 6.7 million people are identified as multiracial. Non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska Natives, alone or in combination with another ethnic group, make up 2% of the population.

Despite the growing interest, advocates say there is more to be done.

Several major news organizations still lack positions reporting on Aboriginal affairs, including some of the largest in the country.

There were wrong steps. In 2020, CNN received backlash over an election graph that showed returns by race as white, Latino, black, Asian, and “something else” – a designation that angered many Native Americans.

The Washington Post has also been criticized for reports regarding the now-abandoned Washington NFL team mascot under the Indigenous title. In 2019, the Native American Journalists Association criticized the newspaper for its “recurring problem” of relying on flawed statements from self-identified Native Americans who said they were not offended by the name.

Last year, Indigenous groups — and Home Secretary Deb Haaland — noted the huge media coverage surrounding the disappearance and death of 22-year-old Gabe Pettito, saying more attention should be paid to the long-running epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women.

Ahton also noted that although there has been a lot of focus recently on investing in local news, this debate rarely extends to tribal media.

Jodi Rafe Spotted Bear, executive director of the Original Media Freedom Coalition, said the grant opportunities were the “light in the tunnel” for her organization and its publishing arm, Buffalo Fire digital news site.

Most tribal media organizations are funded by tribal governments – and few have rules that protect the press.

“Freedom of information does not exist in the community I live in. The tribal government does not have any open meetings,” said Spotted Bear, of the MHA Nation. “Lots of protected communities are like that.”

The result, she said, is decisions made under a “cloak of secrecy,” including the allocation of sometimes huge sums.

One of the major achievements of the Phoenix-based news operation Indian Country Today was the independent ownership, which came out from under the umbrella of the National Congress of the American Indian last year.

The Indigenous-led operation has a wider audience than ever after the 2018 relaunch and the start of the daily newscast. It broadcasts to more than twenty stations in the US, Canada and Australia, and reaches another 800,000 unique users each month on its digital site.

Senior Editor Mark Trarant, Shoshone Bannock, cites a mix of donations, advertising, underwriting, and foundations. Indian Country Today has also partnered with AP to reach more readers around the world, and recently began partnering with another non-profit news outlet,, on coverage of the Pacific Northwest.

A number of ongoing efforts are aimed at strengthening the ranks of Indigenous journalists and increasing the focus on the Indian country.

A 2019 survey by the American Society of News Editors found that less than half 1% of newsroom workers in the United States were Native Americans. However, the Association of Native American Journalists said its membership has expanded significantly since then.

The organization trains students through various programs, including a fellowship that has helped place interns at NBC News, CBS News, USA Today, and elsewhere. Last year, I began collaborating with NPR on an Indigenous-focused digital workshop for early-career professionals.

It also stresses the importance of representing Native Americans in prominent journalistic roles such as board members, publishers, senior editors, and television presenters.

Meanwhile, the Nonprofit News Institute, which provides support to nonprofit news organizations, has announced the start of a new consortium covering rural America with a collaboration that includes investigating economic issues in Indigenous communities.

Weissvilas said the country has a lot to gain from greater coverage of First Nations peoples, cultures, and languages, which often focus society over the individual. He is happy to be a part of that and strives to honor his elders and ancestors through his work.

“Sometimes I feel a lot of weight to try to get it right, to try to do the reporting right and try to tell the story right,” he said. “A lot of Aboriginal people say, ‘We’re still here, and we’ve never gone anywhere. We’ve only been ignored for so long. So I just hope the news reports help put an end to that.”


Oyan, editor at the Associated Press based in Phoenix, served as managing editor for Indian Country Today in 2020 as part of the collaboration between the organization and the AP.


This version has been updated to remove reference to the International Women’s Media Foundation initiative that has been canceled.

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