September V. Martin (Yup’ik)
2021 Native American Journalism Fellow
Masks. Stay-at-home orders. Social distancing. COVID-19. Life has officially changed from two years ago. And, who knows about the long-term effects of this pandemic.
Covering the pandemic posed a unique challenge for news reporters everywhere, but especially those working in Indian Country. With the widespread stay-at-home orders, journalists had to adjust how they contacted and interviewed sources.
“At one point, I had the idea to do a story, early in the pandemic, about communities that had no COVID cases. I knew that was the case with some remote villages in Alaska, and I wondered if it was happening in the lower 48,” explained Joaqlin Estus (Tlingit), National Correspondent (Anchorage) for Indian Country Today, “So, I just started calling tribes.”
As Estus tried to confirm which tribes did or didn’t have COVID-19 cases, she was often referred to another tribal contact.
“I probably called 20 or 30 tribes on that story, and either got the response that they did have COVID or I got no response,” Estus said.
Estus’ experience is one that other journalists can relate to when reporting on the pandemic within Indigenous communities: There is a lack of data. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye (Dine’), managing editor at Indian Country Today, started a database to track COVID-19 cases, after she learned there was no single location that journalists (or anyone else) could go to for data on coronavirus infection and mortality rates in U.S. Indigenous communities.
“As I tell people, it started out of curiosity,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone else doing it in the capacity I wanted to do it. Indian Health Services wasn’t keeping track, at the time the database started.”
Prior to earning her master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Bennett-Begaye received a Bachelor of Arts in athletic training from Fort Lewis College. She has relied on her background in medicine and public health throughout this pandemic to cover stories and support her database work.
She began a spreadsheet in the middle of March 2020, the week that the Navajo Nation, of which Bennett-Begaye is a citizen, experienced its first COVID cases. The spreadsheet grew from there. Eventually, Johns Hopkins became involved to track and map the data. She shared that building trust with tribes, tribal health officials, and tribal leaders took time to establish, so she could track these cases.
“I think it’s not only hard for non-Native journalists, but also as a Native journalist,” she said. “So a lot of time, it was just calling people and talking with them, and seeing how they’re doing, what’s going on, how their family’s doing. It was just building a relationship with them and trying to see how they’re doing during this difficult time.”
The personal level of care and consideration Bennett-Begaye relied on to build trusting relationships with tribes also became a necessity with her team at work. She explained that dealing with pandemic reminded everyone on her team of their humanity. An important part of that reminder involved enforcing a new work and life balance.
“We really had to draw boundaries,” she explained, “We were working long hours, I probably was working like 12-hour days. It was insane.”
Bennett-Begaye shared that a positive for Indian Country Today was that the digital media team knew how to work remotely, which meant they would be reporting from Indian Country’s front lines rather than just through “phone journalism.”
Meanwhile Estus discussed her beat as a national correspondent for Indian Country Today in Alaska. She explained that not being able to physically travel to cover events impacted how she finds newsworthy stories and hindered how she can visually capture them.
“Being there in person is so much better, it really brings the story to life,” Estus said. “You can just walk up to somebody in the audience and talk with them. The other thing is, you just run into people that you know, and they’ll tell you things. So you get a lot of tips that way, just in random conversations. And, with the pandemic, you’re not having random conversations.”
Despite the many challenges the pandemic has brought, some of the effects have been positive. Estus shared the solace of being in her home helped her storytelling.
“The thing about being a reporter is there’s two parts to it. One is when you’re out in the world, interviewing and talking with people, and then the other part is when you’re writing,” Estus explained. “I’m not one of those people who the words just flow, I have to work at it. And so, that’s a solitary activity. And I can do that from home. And I like that.”
As for the future and Indigenous news reporting, both Indian Country Today reporters are positive and said there needs to be more Native news coverage.
“To combat stereotypes, you have to tell the good, the bad and the ugly. You have to fill out the picture. And the only way to do that is to have more coverage, and to have reporters who will take the time and have the interest in finding out about the context,” Estus said. “I think we need more Native American journalists, whether they work for Native media or mainstream, they’ll inform the newsrooms that they’re in and the coverage will change.”
Fittingly, Bennett-Begaye who is the managing editor for Indian Country Today, hopes the increase in Indigenous journalists includes more Native news managers.
“Where the real change happens is at the leadership and executive level, that’s where all the big decisions are made. And we need a lot of Native people in those decision-making positions,” she said. “It’s great to have allies. It’s great that people listen to us. But, to have somebody making those calls, I think would be so phenomenal. And would push the needle much further than it would go if we didn’t have a person there.”