Incomplete, Uncontextualized and Blatantly Racist: US Media’s Coverage of Native Communities

By: Jen Deerinwater

The Navajo Nation has the highest per capita infection rate from the COVID-19 pandemic, eclipsing New York and New Jersey, which are often painted as the hardest hit areas in the United States. But you wouldn’t know this from reading most U.S. media outlets.

As the U.S. reaches more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, making it the most impacted nation in the world, it is no secret that marginalized communities are suffering the most. However, Native communities are already much smaller in numbers than other minority groups; each death is one less person in a community that has already been devastated by a genocide.

“Even at five million we are less that two percent of the U.S. population. Our entire population could fit into one metropolis area and that’s the Detroit metropolis area,” said Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw journalist and community activist, Johnnie Jae, pointing out that, when one Native person dies it is the equivalent of 1,077 white people dying, if you keep scale in mind.

“When you look at rates of infection the numbers look low,” she continued. “But you have to really look at the scale of our communities. When we lose someone in our community we’re not just losing a loved one we’re losing a huge chunk of our culture, our traditions, our language, our future.”

Despite this significant loss, news coverage has been minimal, and when it does happen, it is incomplete, uncontextualized, and often blatantly racist.

“It is an incomplete picture of the first Americans,” said Indianz.Com Co-Founder Acee Agoyo, a Native journalist from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo community in northern New Mexico.

“Some stories accurately report how tribal leaders fear the spread of the Coronavirus among their people,” he continued. “But they don’t explain why this is: decades of neglect by the federal government to fulfill its trust and treaty obligations.”

Agoyo is speaking to how the U.S. government has broken every single treaty it ever signed with our nations. Treaty and trust responsibilities, such as access to healthcare, are either ignored or are so grossly underfunded they’re leaving us without the resources that we negotiated for through the loss of life and lands, an essential piece of context that is often missed in the already limited U.S. media coverage on Native communities. Most recently, this has manifest as the Trump administration trying to redirect the CARES Act fund of $8 billion promised to Native nations to corporations, instead. While the $2 trillion dollar economic relief fund is intended to distribute much needed funds quickly to support states and tribal nations, The New York Times has blamed the delay on a “dispute among the nation’s Native populations” rather than Trump’s insistence it not reach them in the first place.

It isn’t shocking when the mainstream media leaves Native communities behind, and twists our stories.

Our issues are rarely covered and when they are it is rarely done with any accuracy or cultural awareness, even when the world isn’t in the midst of a pandemic.

One of the reasons behind these lacking, and poor representations is the abhorrently low numbers of Native journalists working in the U.S. media. According to a 2018 survey by the American Society of News Editors, only 41 total Native journalists were employed in the total of 184 digital and print media outlets that participated in the survey. It is therefore not surprising that the Native American Journalist Association’s 2017 Reclaiming the Truth study found that Native journalists represent a mere 0.2% of employees in the US mainstream media.

These numbers are even more bleak when broken down by gender. According to a 2018 report by the Women’s Media Center found in a 2018 report that of newsroom leaders only 0.28% were American Indian women and 0.05 percent were Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women.

Approximately 40 percent of the U.S. population are ethnic “minorities” but the media does not reflect this. Many of the major publications, such as the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times are all majority white, even though they are headquartered in minority-majority cities. When the media is overwhelmingly owned, operated, and produced by those that directly benefit from Native genocide, it is not a shock they’re abandoning Native people in a COVID-19 media landscape.

As a result, most of the U.S. population is grossly misinformed on issues facing Native populations. Many do not understand tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship that each tribe has with the U.S. government. We are not a race of people, as settler colonialism has painted us, but rather, distinct, sovereign nations. Not all of us live on our ancestral lands, either. Due to termination and removal policies, 71 percent of us live in cities, again forcing us off of our lands in one of the more modern aspects of an ongoing genocide. This reality is furthered by incidents such as the Seattle Indian Health Board’s request for tests, supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE) being met with body bags, something that might be an innocent mistake, but this is representative of how Native people are often treated, and it could very likely result in Native deaths. In ignoring our history, and the ways that policies have reinforced it, non-Native media more often than not misses this connection.

Still, the media rarely investigates what leads to higher rates of poverty in our communities, instead painting us as criminals. When The New York Times covered Andrea Circle Bear’s death, the first woman to die of COVID-19 in a federal prison, the paper focused on her crime—selling $850 worth of methamphetamine—rather than the conditions that got her there, or that she died at the hands of the U.S. prison system. Many have ignored the fact that many of the same states that are now requiring masks for public safety have criminalized masks in the past, largely due to movements like the Indigenous-lead pipeline protests, and other movements of People of Color like Black Lives Matter.

New York Times reports on the first COVID-19 female prisoner death without context.

Even when journalists are more sympathetic, they often infantilize us—as Van Jones did in a CNN piece proposing how to “save” us. We don’t need saving. We need fair, accurate and culturally appropriate media coverage that speaks to our communities’ experiences, and the historical forces that shaped it.

Media can start by reporting on how Indigenous people across the world feel the impact of global climate chaos, and how this could make future pandemics even more challenging. However, despite the even greater need for regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency has suspended all regulatory actions with no clearly defined date of when they will resume their responsibilities. We’re in a situation of a free-for-all for the resource extraction and chemical industries in the U.S. with tribal nations shouldering the heaviest burden. We’ve now entered into the flooding and tornado season in the U.S. on top of forest fires, droughts, and earthquakes, many of which are due to fracking. I fear our already scarce resources will disappear and many more of us will become ill and die—and that a lack of understanding will be partly to blame.

As a journalist, I have solidarity with my colleagues. Many of us risk our lives to deliver the news, and I myself have been maced, tear gassed, physically assaulted and surveilled as a “terrorist” all the while receiving hate mail, and death threats, like so many others pushing for the truth. But Native people shouldn’t suffer from the deficiencies and institutional oppression of the media industry. When the news misleads and ignores us, we suffer and die, making the media’s mistakes a part of our ongoing genocide.  If we are ever going to see justice, media needs to do a better job, starting now.