Indigenous people across North America depend on tribal and Indigenous-owned media outlets for essential news and information about their communities. Because many Indigenous communities reside in places without an independent local newspaper, these outlets may be the only source of information about tribal affairs. Compounding this, mainstream media coverage often sorely lacks the context and perspective necessary to tell Indigenous stories with clarity and authenticity.
While tribal media outlets have the experience and depth of understanding to provide nuanced coverage, they may not have the freedom or resources to report fully on issues that concern their audiences.
The Native American Journalists Association launched the Red Press Initiative to better understand the value of an Indigenous free press to the wellbeing of Indigenous people, communities and nations. The accurate and contextual reporting about Indigenous people and issues is necessary to overcome the biases and stereotypes commonly portrayed in popular media. Vigorous and independent tribal and Indigenous-owned media operations must be at the heart of developing best practices in covering Indigenous issues.
The initiative conducted a survey in 2018 among tribal media producers and consumers. The survey aimed to gather anonymous responses from tribal media stakeholders to assess the value and challenges to a free press in Indigenous communities — communities that rely heavily on tribal media reporting as a source of accurate news about tribal affairs.
This groundbreaking initiative has been generously funded by the Ford Foundation, and has been joined by other press freedom advocates including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Democracy Fund, the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The survey concluded in August 2019, and several significant points emerged from the data:
The freedoms of speech and press are valued
Overwhelmingly, ALL RESPONDENTS reported that the values of freedom of speech and press are important.
Press freedom in Indian Country is inconsistent
TRIBAL MEDIA PRODUCERS responded that journalistic freedom remains a challenge and is inconsistent.
Nearly a third responded that the tribal government tries to control tribal media through their budget at least HALF THE TIME.
Nearly a fourth of tribal media staff responded that stories about tribal affairs or officials went unreported due to censorship, or that public relations staff influenced published news all or most of the time.
Nearly a third of these same staff responded that prior approval of stories by government officials was required all or most of the time.
Nearly half of tribal media staff responded that they were subject to intimidation and harassment when covering tribal affairs.
Where does this leave independent journalism and an Indigenous free press?
If journalists working in tribal media are unable to perform the basic functions of journalism due to censorship or fear of harassment, is truth, diversity of opinion, and accountability lost?
All citizens of a tribal nation need to know the level of freedom exercised by their tribal media. A “kept” press — or any Indigenous media outlet that lacks editorial freedom — is stripped of its ability to fully serve its community. A media operation that exists solely to publish information at the discretion of government authority can be used as a tool of control. Any government that controls the content and distribution of the message can manipulate and undermine the will of the people.
Robust and independent tribal media operations are vital to maintain a watchful eye and provide a fair platform for the voice of the people. To achieve this, tribal governments must invest in tribal media operations and fund them at levels necessary to reach their audiences while employing trained and talented Indigenous journalists. Tribes must also enact legislation that places editorial firewalls between the political and journalistic goals of the tribe.
With stable budgetary investment, trained professional staff, and firm editorial protections and independence, tribal media can fulfill an essential role in dynamic tribal economies and the fulfillment of the vision for self-determination. This commitment will foster culturally accurate storytelling, provide an unbiased platform for community voices, and support a watchdog of tribal operations and coffers.
Please contact project coordinator Bryan Pollard at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in joining this important initiative.