Sunday, February 22, 2009

Overcovering Indians

At the Electric City Weblog, Rob Natelson has had a couple of posts on coverage of Indian issues in the Missoulian. The thrust of the posts is that Indians get disproportionate coverage compared to other groups, such as taxpayers.

Some commenters argue with the professor's methodology. I also am skeptical. Many stories of interest and relevance to taxpayers, for example, don't contain the word "taxpayer." Same with most of the various job titles he mentions.

But I also think the post misses something about Indian coverage and about news coverage in general. I say this as someone who covered the Indian beat at The Gazette for a couple of years and once wrote a proposal for Lee Enterprises to create the sort of Indian beat that Jodi Rave now holds. I never actually submitted the proposal because I figured I wouldn't get the beat and I didn't want to risk losing what Indian coverage I had. But I suspect that the reasoning I used was similar to the reasoning that eventually created the position.

First things first: I can't speak for the Missoulian, but at the Gazette Indian coverage was never an easy sell. A lot of Indian-related stories were of no particular interest to white readers, and Indians themselves were not the demographic group most appealing to Gazette advertisers. I always felt that I had to make a case for covering Indian stories, and from what I hear, that still holds true.

So why create an Indian beat? My thoughts ran along these lines:

1. Indian reservations, because of their quasi-sovereign status, deal with issues that simply don't exist elsewhere, and they are complex issues that tend to run across reservation lines. So, for example, time invested understanding Northern Cheyenne governance would save some of the time required to learn, say, Fort Peck governance (this was less true for the Crow, which still ran under its own rules at the time).

2. Issues involving social pathology -- alcoholism, drug addiction, disease, crime, poverty, etc. -- tend to be rampant on reservations. In a way, they are the canary in the coal mine for all kinds of social problems, and you know how reporters love that stuff.

3. Most reservations lack much news coverage of their own, so it is a place where real journalism can make a difference. Not much profit in that argument, but it does fit in with what journalism ought to be about.

4. Every powwow makes a great photo. Features abound on reservations, and they sometimes have a national audience.

I don't know that Natelson would disagree with any of this, but he may not understand that when a beat like this is created, that in itself leads to the sorts of disproportionate coverage that he detects. Reporters typically don't just get stories at random; they get stories off the beats they cover, from the people they talk to regularly and the governmental bodies whose meetings they attend. So once a decision is made to cover a beat, disproportionate coverage is almost guaranteed, unless you can afford to cover every significant beat you can think of.

That's why, for example, the Gazette has so much crime news. It isn't that crime rules our lives or even necessarily because crime news sells (although it does, to a point) but because reporters are assigned to cover that beat to make sure nothing important gets missed. But assigning the reporter not only leads to the big stories but to all sorts of smaller stories that happen to get churned up in the course of trolling the beat. The result is a disproportionate emphasis on crime.

When I left the county and Indian beats at the Gazette to start the Outpost, I continued to get a disproportionate number of county and Indian stories for a few years afterward. That's where my sources were. Natelson himself may recall asking me once on his radio program how I managed to break an important county story that nobody else had found. The answer was simple: I still knew the beat and, even though I was no longer working it daily, I was still getting tips off it.

In the same way, the Outpost got its biggest scoop ever off the Indian beat. Because both Ron Selden and I maintained contacts on the Crow reservation, we broke the story that then-tribal Chairman Clifford Birdinground was taking kickbacks from a car dealer a full year before the indictment was handed up. Nobody else even touched that story until legal documents were filed.

And so it goes. Disproportionate coverage is built into every beat. As reporting ranks decline, those gaps are likely to grow larger -- and provide the professor with more to complain about.


Chuck Rightmire said...

David: When I went to work at the Gazette (back in the pre-flood era according to Ed Kemmick), we covered the federal government and part of the government was the BIA and the Indian Health Service. I got what I thought then was quite a few stories out of those agencies. (Ed may disagree.) But we didn't always cover them from the Indian point of view (a mistake). But it seems to me that with the possible exception of crime, the Gazette has no assigned beats but all reporters, from what I see in the paper, are general assignment.

Mark T said...

In much the same way, the plight of ordinary working stiff and their families could be magnified if newspapers covered labor issues at all. What is there - like one labor reporter nationwide?