Bolstering press freedom in Indian Country

JSK Fellowship to help develop and highlight resources to support tribal media

Bryan Pollard
Nov 22 · 6 min read

Independent and rigorous journalism among tribal media in Indian Country is the exception and not the norm. But as tribal economies — and tribal coffers — grow, so does the need for dedicated, ethical Indigenous journalists to tell the important stories of our successes and challenges. Unfettered tribal media have a critical role to play in realizing the aspiration of tribal self-determination.

JSK Fellow Bryan Pollard

I’m spending 10 months at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, and during that time, I plan to examine the common challenges to press freedom experienced in a sample of tribal communities. I also want to determine what tools and resources may be helpful to enhance independent Indigenous journalism. This important work will rely on recent data collected by the Native American Journalists Association through its Red Press Initiative, access to the many experts and resources available through the fellowship, and conversations with tribal media stakeholders.

Today’s tribal media exist in an economic purgatory that renders editorial and financial independence difficult to achieve. Many tribal media operations are in remote locations and publish or broadcast to a relatively small audience. The economic realities of these news deserts limit revenue models commonly found in mainstream media markets, especially subscriptions and advertisements, and require dependence on tribal governments to subsidize their operations. This dependence can chill — or worse, completely defeat — a free Indigenous press.

I learned this in no uncertain terms in 2006 when I was only a few weeks into my new role as executive editor of the Cherokee Phoenix — the media outlet for the Cherokee Nation founded in 1828. I received a call about a recently published story, and the caller was an elected official who held a seat on the nation’s legislature.

It was a brief but tense conversation, and her demand was for the Phoenix to retract the story. Despite my persistent prodding for specifics, she was unable to identify any need for a correction. The call ended with a thinly veiled threat: if I ran another story like that, then my department’s budget might need to be “reexamined.”

Her message was clear: Publishing stories that embarrassed the Cherokee Nation’s leaders could lead to cuts in the Cherokee Phoenix’s funding — or worse.

The Cherokee Phoenix staff and supporters in New Echota, Georgia, in 2009. The Phoenix was founded at New Echota in 1828.

The Phoenix should be protected by the Independent Press Act, a Cherokee Nation law enacted to provide a firewall for editorial independence to an organization owned and funded by the tribal government. The letter of the law did not protect department funding, and the contentious call with the councilor made that clear. Undue political influence can and does affect reporting at tribal media outlets.

The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest tribal nations in North America. The nation’s ability to communicate with its citizens is a tremendous challenge because there is no one channel or platform that will reach all of its nearly 350,000 citizens, most of whom live outside of the tribe’s jurisdictional boundaries in Northeastern Oklahoma. An independent, multimedia news outlet is essential to provide accurate information to a disparate and sometimes thinly-connected audience.

Tribal media outlets are often the only consistent providers of current events to their audience. Mainstream media often do not cover tribal affairs, and when they do, the accuracy of the context and substance of their reporting is wildly inconsistent and often shaded with bias.

The Native American Journalists Association recently conducted a survey among tribal officials, and tribal media producers and consumers. The survey, a part of the organization’s Red Press Initiative, aimed to gather anonymous responses from tribal media stakeholders to gain a better understanding of the value and challenges to tribal media in communities across Indian Country — communities that rely heavily on tribal media reporting as a source of accurate news about tribal affairs.

The Cherokee Nation has enacted legislation to protect press freedom.

The survey responses from tribal media staff reflected concerns in many aspects of basic journalism practice. When asked to rank the greatest threat to tribal media, more than half of respondents identified budgetary constraints and lack of financial resources as a top threat.

About a fourth of tribal media staff responded that stories about tribal affairs or officials went unreported due to censorship 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. Of those, nearly 80 percent responded that the source of the harassment was tribal elected or senior officials all or most of the time.

The survey also recorded responses from consumers — the readers, listeners, and viewers of tribal media. Nearly 40 percent responded that tribal media only sometimes or never reflected the range of opinions and concerns of tribal citizens. Another 40 percent responded that tribal citizens only sometimes or never have adequate information about tribal affairs.

Where does that leave investigative journalism in Indian Country? If journalists working in tribal media are unable to perform the basic functions of journalism due to fear of harassment or worse, is public accountability of tribal government lost?

Some, but not all, tribes have entered an era of prosperity based on revenues from gaming and other enterprises. These gains have been burgeoning for decades as tribes have built opportunities for their citizens and their communities through new development and business enterprises.

In the state of Oklahoma there are 39 federally recognized tribes, including the Cherokee Nation. These tribes employed nearly 50,000 workers and create nearly 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. They spent nearly $4.6 billion in wages and benefits, and were estimated to have a $13 billion impact on the state, according to 2017 data published in the Tulsa World.

In the state of Washington there are 29 federally recognized tribes. They employ nearly 31,000 workers and create at least 55,000 direct and indirect jobs. They have spent nearly $1.5 billion in employee compensation, and were estimated to a have a $5.6 billion direct, indirect and induced economic benefit, according to the Economic & Community Benefits of Tribes in Washington report in 2019.

These are just two examples of the economic impacts felt by states, but the more important impact is measured by investment within tribal communities. Tribal governments are funding new health clinics, language programs, community buildings, smoking cessation programs, technology infrastructure, community gardens, youth programs, entrepreneurial and small business support, educational scholarships, diet and healthy food programs, law enforcement agencies, and building new roads and bridges. Many Indigenous families and communities across Indian Country are feeling the results of this investment.

Free press advocates Pollard; Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of the Osage News; and Tom Arviso, publisher of the Navajo Times and JSK Fellowship alumnus.

While this prosperity should be hailed as a success for tribal economies, it also poses greater and greater risk for inadvertent mismanagement or outright corruption. As tribal revenues grow, so does the temptation for anyone seeking to usurp or retain control of the coffers. The need for journalistic independence and investigatory freedom in Indian Country has never been greater. Tribes have invested heavily in their governments, communities, and enterprises, but almost always tribal media has been left out or cut out.

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.

This investment is long overdue. Tribal leaders and citizens must empower their tribal media outlets and professionals to achieve accurate and accountable storytelling. This is a shared responsibility, and I’m hopeful that my work at the JSK Fellowships will bolster a free Indigenous press.

Bryan Pollard

Written by

John S. Knight Fellow, Stanford University; former president, Native American Journalists Association; former executive editor, Cherokee Phoenix

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

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