Reporting on Native American communities

NBCU Academy 101

Graham Lee Brewer, a national reporter at NBC News, vice president of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, talks with NBCU Academy about reporting on Native American communities.

I think most people would say they personally don’t know someone who is Indigenous. The public school system does not teach true Indigenous histories, or what Indigenous people look like in a post-1900 context, so most people are left to make assumptions about Native American communities based on stereotypes they see in Hollywood movies and other popular culture. Those stereotypes, whether intentional or not, often make their way into reporting.

The protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was a catalyst for many newsrooms to recognize that they’ve been ignoring Native communities for a long, long time. 

But much reporting about Native American communities, especially reservation life, includes a paragraph that encapsulates poverty statistics, suicide rates and unemployment but fails to present context about how we got here. Would it be appropriate to have that paragraph in a story about health disparity in a poor community in a major U.S. city that is mostly white?

Recently, the Native American Journalists Association released its 2021 Media Spotlight Report, which takes an in-depth look at media coverage of tribal communities between 2015 to 2021. The report shows a continued pattern of focusing on trauma, violence, deprivation and disadvantage. 

NAJA’s BINGO Card: Reporting in Indian Country Edition satirizes the paragraph in every story about a Native community that lists the suicide rates, unemployment rates, poverty, etc. We wanted people to really understand how much they load up stories about Indigenous communities and people with stereotypes and examples of disadvantage.

“BINGO: Reporting in Indian Country Edition” (Native American Journalists Association)

The BINGO Card is a way to see your own biases and question whether the information in your report is important, helpful and contextualized. If your story on Indigenous people gets a “BINGO” or close to one, you might want to reevaluate your article. 

A lot of reporting about Native communities is just that — it’s about them, it’s not for them. When a real community reporter understands the community, knows the stakes, knows what the future could hold and what the current arguments are, that all gives you a contextual, rounded, very three-dimensional view of a community and it leads to good stories. 

No two tribal nations are exactly the same. There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States and many more Indigenous communities.

If you’re going to try to cover a tribal nation, it’s important to be in the community as much as possible. Understand its history and its relationship with the U.S. government. How its tribal government functions, passes laws and holds elections are topics most reporters don’t know and typically ignore. Not only would learning this improve your reporting, but it would lead you to stories that your competition simply won’t see.

To be an objective journalist in Indian Country, you have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable. You cannot ignore the fact that the U.S. government has actively worked to try to destroy this community and that Americans have benefitted from genocide. As an American, that’s a hard pill to swallow, but I don’t see how you can report on Indian Country without confronting that personally. You really have to be willing to grapple with real historical violence, because that’s how we got here.