The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) issued the following statement after National Public Radio broadcast and published “Native American Adoption Law Challenged As Racially Biased” – an inaccurate and imprecise story about an Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) custody case:
NPR violated its ethics policy by failing to thoroughly fact check its reporting and allowing racist language and views on air unchallenged. “Native American Adoption Law Challenged As Racially Biased” by Wade Goodwyn contains multiple factual inaccuracies, lacks context, and propagates racist language and ideas.
Goodwyn says “It turned out that Mason’s mother – and therefore – Mason, was part Indian.” This is a misleading and incorrect statement: The child’s mother is a tribal citizen, therefore the child is also a tribal citizen. This designation is foundational to federal Indian law. To frame it otherwise is inaccurate and irresponsible, especially given the sensitivity owed to children involved in ICWA cases. Goodwyn also discloses the identity of a child involved in adoption proceedings – a violation of their safety and privacy.
Goodwyn uses a quote from the child’s adoptive parent: “Mason didn’t even look Indian in the least regards.” This is deceptive and racially-coded language that defines the child’s identity by physical appearance or skin color. These types of depictions of Native people are blatantly racist and should have been addressed by editors before publication and in the story. In ICWA cases, the child’s identity is based on a political connection to a sovereign nation, and is not based on racial identifiers. This framing runs counter to NPR’s policy of respect and accuracy.
The Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur, who was chosen as a primary source, provided a misleading argument that ICWA is a matter of race, not of citizenship. This is disinformation often raised by groups that seek to diminish and destroy the political identity of Indigenous peoples and the sovereign status of tribal nations. By airing these views nationally, NPR has provided a megaphone for anti-Indian ideas and a platform for racism against Native people. As per NPR ethics, reporters should check sources’ “facts,” as advocates can skew the context of the story.
NPR has an ethical obligation to report these views in their social and political context but must also be committed to reporting these ideas responsibly. The network’s ethics policy makes this clear in numerous ways, and NAJA urges NPR to immediately correct the story. NPR should also review its policies and personnel that allowed an unchecked platform for racist ideas that propagate hostility and racism toward Indigenous people.
It is the position of NAJA that NPR is in violation of its own ethics policies by failing to conduct due diligence before publication. The network continues to suffer missteps and stereotypical coverage of Native communities, and NAJA has repeatedly offered free cultural competency and ethics training to NPR staff and editors in the past with no response. However, the offer remains and NAJA would be happy to work with NPR to facilitate more accurate, and ethical, journalism.