At the Unity: Journalists of Color convention in the summer of 2004, I watched as Mark Trahant, a Native American journalist from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, asked President George W. Bush a simple question: “What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?”

Bush had one of those deer-in-the-headlights moments that often end up on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Bush stammered: “Tribal sovereignty means that; it’s sovereign. You’re a—you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity ….” The audience tittered. Some laughed out loud. The quote was widely reported. And, yes, it made “The Daily Show.” But only a few articles about this incident went on to explain what tribal sovereignty means to Native Americans or why it’s important.

Unconsciously journalists often replicate the distorted images and stereotypes of Native peoples that have been part of our culture since the first European contacts with peoples of the Americas.The omission points up a recurring problem with news coverage of Native Americans: Journalists fail to explain the history and context that’s critical to understanding their issues. A second problem is related: Unconsciously journalists often replicate the distorted images and stereotypes of Native peoples that have been part of our culture since the first European contacts with peoples of the Americas.

These problems have been around as long as the Euro-American press has covered Native peoples. And that’s as long as there has been journalism in this country. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, the short-lived paper widely considered the first newspaper in the English North American colonies—it published a single issue, in 1690—devoted significant space to its writing about Native Americans. As historian John Coward has written, editor Benjamin Harris praised Christianized Indians for setting aside a day of thanksgiving but accused other Indians of kidnapping local children. Still other Indians were termed “miserable savages” for failing to support the British militarily.

Images Affect Coverage

From colonial times to the present the news media have largely failed to tell Native Americans’ stories fully, accurately and, sometimes, at all. And flaws in coverage have generally stemmed from the dual problems of stereotypical images and lack of context.

Most Americans and a great many Europeans, too, grow up with popular culture images of Indians. These images influence unconscious attitudes and mindsets that inform the ways people think—and journalists approach stories. The images actually go back to the time of Columbus, when Europeans were trying to make sense of the peoples they found in the “new” world. Somehow they had to fit these exotic folks into worldviews and mindsets that made no provision for them.

The result, according to historian Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. and others, was imagery that projected Europeans’ fears of the “savagery” they imagined in the absence of civilization and the nobility of an, also imagined, pristine state of nature. These images, the stuff of myth and fiction, have been repeated so often and in so many settings that they have taken on an aura of fact.

There is the “bad Indian,” an image that takes many forms. Historically, “bad Indians” were “savages.” They were assigned qualities that embodied everything colonists and later settlers feared becoming or succumbing to in the vast, alien wilderness: paganism, lechery, brutality, cruelty, indolence, treachery and so on. Later, after Native Americans ceased to be a military threat, a related image, the “degraded” Indian, appeared. This image depicted someone who was an object of derision or pity, someone who couldn’t cope with the complexities of white civilization. He was depicted as poor, unemployed, drunk, or all three.

The flip side was the “good Indian.” This image often takes the form of the “noble savage”—someone who has an innate closeness to and communion with nature, who is at home in the natural world, who can understand it in ways whites cannot. Paradoxically, “good Indians” were also those who adopted farming and Christianity; i.e., they abandoned their cultures and became like whites.

Overlaying these images was the notion that, good or bad, Indians were exotic and ancient, people of the past, out of place in today’s world. You can see the “good” and “bad” images coexisting in Publick Occurrences: the good Christianized Indians and the bad “miserable savages.” And you can see them, albeit less blatantly, in current coverage.

All of these images, of course, defined Indians negatively in relation to whites. (For example, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune wrote in 1860 that “Indians are children. Their arts, wars, treaties, alliances, habitations, crafts, properties, commerce, comforts, all belong to the very lowest and rudest ages of human existence.”) Clearly such depictions told us more about the ethnocentric attitudes of Euro-Americans than about Native peoples. And the fact that the images are still around after more than 500 years might also tell us something about whites. Because constructing such views of the “other” is an exercise in power. Defining the other in negative terms gives the dominant party greater control over the discourse.

Such images are staples of literature and popular culture, from the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Jeep Cherokee. When these stereotypes are replicated in the news, they can influence public policy as well as the attitudes of ordinary people. They’ve been the basis for public policies that deprived Native peoples of their land and forced them to abandon their religions, languages and cultures.

The Challenge for Journalism

Journalism, ideally, gives its audience facts and reality—the news without fear or favor. It doesn’t deal with fantasy or fiction. But also journalism tries to make sense of the world. That is, it seeks to take the randomness of events and transform them into stories, narratives that allow us to understand what is happening. To do this, journalists, consciously or unconsciously, invoke familiar images, what Walter Lippmann called “the pictures in our heads.”

In the coverage of Native Americans, consciously or unconsciously, stories have been shaped to fit well known themes of bad, good or degraded, ancient and exotic Indians. Examples can be found from stories that examine the ways some tribes manage their casino income to those about reservation poverty. Among the most obvious lingering stereotypes are those in sports team names and mascots: The University of Illinois’s Chief Illiniwek, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and others. Mostly, news organizations covering those teams repeat the images without examining their origins and power.

Still, today’s journalists are more sensitive to the power of stereotypes than their predecessors. Nevertheless, Native Americans are often victims of the unconscious mindsets and assumptions of journalists who grew up with Indian “pictures” in their heads.

Another problem with coverage—the lack of context and historical background—can blight stories of their meaning, giving audiences facts without context. Admittedly Native American issues are complex. That tribal sovereignty issue that caused George Bush to stumble has tangled legal, historical and cultural strands that are daunting to unravel. Yet that issue underlies many of today’s stories about casinos, law enforcement, health, education and more.

The failure of journalists to inject the background and context such stories demand stems, I believe, from the institutional imperatives of today’s newsgathering:

  • The need for timeliness and speed, spurred by the Internet and real-time television reporting, provides journalists with little time to reflect, to seek background information, or to find more sources.

  • The need for brevity to accommodate the audience’s perceived short attention span makes it hard to construct nuanced portrayals of little-known groups.

  • The traditional news values that favor conflict and violence over cooperation spotlight negative behavior—and negative images.

  • The emphasis on the bizarre and the visually arresting highlights those with loud voices, extreme views, and strange appearances rather than the thoughtful moderates.

  • The practice of valuing events over trends or situations tends to downplay complex issues.

These practices themselves are culture-neutral. But they can work against giving audiences an accurate picture of Native peoples. And when you consider that, for many, their only acquaintance with Native Americans is through popular culture or the news, the importance of accurate journalism is clear.

Mary Ann Weston is an associate professor emerita at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, where she taught courses in history and issues of journalism, reporting on race, and reporting and writing. She was a member of the Detroit Free Press staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1967 riots there. Her book on portrayals of Native Americans in the 20th century press, “Native Americans in the News,” was published in 1996 by Greenwood Press. She was coeditor and cowriter of “U.S. News Coverage of Racial Minorities 1934-1996: A Sourcebook,” published in 1997 by Greenwood Press.

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