Tips to ethically cover Indigenous communities

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of tips gleaned from the most recent annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

By Ashley Zhou

BOISE, Idaho — I have had years of experience reporting on various topics, but the environment is not one of them. I was initially intimidated by the  spring Society of Environmental Journalists’ 32nd annual conference.

However, through networking and attending various panels, I quickly realized that SEJ is a welcoming community. It is filled with journalists of all levels of expertise and background. Veteran reporters from CNN and National Geographic wandered with dozens of rising journalists from local newsrooms, all tirelessly working towards the same passion of environmental journalism.

Workshops included FOIA tips and reporting on traumatic issues. Like many others, I struggled deciding what interested me the most.

“Ethically Covering Tribal Issues and Traditional Knowledge,” was a popular choice, the room overflowing with eager journalists bordering the walls and sitting on the floor.

For journalists new to covering Indigenous issues, tribes are not interchangeable, said San Francisco State University journalism professor Christina Azocar. Tribes don’t all face the same issues. She recommended  “basic reporting”  before interviews.

“I know that sounds so simple, but so many people don’t do this,” said Azocar, a citizen of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe.

Indigenous media  such as Indian Country Today or High Country News are significant places to learn how other journalists have appropriately covered Native communities, Azocar said.

But there may be some limitations when working with tribes, said Carina Dominguez, a freelance journalist and citizen of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Many are reluctant to  share information and lack access to the internet. Giving yourself time to build relationships with tribes can help avoid such barriers, she said.

“Reach out when you don’t have something that you need, ask what’s going on in the community,” Dominguez said.

Seeking sources of diverse backgrounds and staying away from stereotypes are crucial, said Dominguez. Discuss these challenges with the newsroom.

“Words are a perilous gift,” and reporters have a responsibility to listen humbly, said Dallas Gudgell, a wildlife policy and tribal outreach coordinator for the International Wildlife Coexistence Network and Buffalo Field Campaign.

Indigenous communities are “coming away from generational trauma,” said Gudgell, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana. Many Indigenous individuals don’t trust their words with journalists.

It’s not uncommon for newsrooms to have historically negative relationships with tribes, said one audience membe. But how can an individual entering a newsroom enact a change and rekindle relationships?

Highlighting the newsrooms’ past mistakes may seem daunting, but it can be helpful, Dominguez said. Although immediate change might not occur, it can spark a mental note to jumpstart a crucial change to future newsrooms.

“We’re taught in journalism school to be humble, to not know anything, to go asking for information,” Azocar said. “Fight for the story … that’s the truth of the people you’re trying to tell.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *