By Charlie Kadado
UNITY Reporting Fellow

Native American Journalists Association members gather in New Orleans in September 2016.

Native American Journalists Association members gather in New Orleans in September 2016.

On the heels of the North Dakota pipeline battle, Native American journalists discussed the mainstream and alternative coverage areas of Native cultures and communities, and how representation and information between outlets may conflict.

NAJA, the Native American Journalists Association, joined the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television and Digital News Association to host a combined 2016 Excellence in Journalism convention Sept. 18 to Sept. 20 in New Orleans.

I’ll admit, other than what I’ve been exposed to in mainstream news, I really didn’t know much about Native American media coverage and its reach. I was also never exposed to alternative Native American media outlets, such as the Indian Country Media Network or the Native Times.

In fact, one of my first conversations was with an Indian Country writer, who said, “I don’t trust wire reports about protests in North Dakota. I will only read Native press because they actually understand our people.”

Her comments reflect a frustration I’ve heard multiple times this summer at other national conventions. Many groups expressed a disappointment in the selection of coverage areas, and the cultural awareness of writers.

The EIJ convention, I think, was a valuable opportunity for Native journalists to share these concerns, cultures and preferences with non-Native journalists, especially with the large involvement of SPJ and RTDNA members.

EIJ newsroom

EIJ newsroom

Additionally, the EIJ student newsroom merged SPJ and Columbia University students into one operation. It was refreshing and enlightening to hear Native student journalists guide non-Natives through background research, or a general understanding of an issue before panels. I know I asked several questions, including some uninformed ones, out of curiosity. Luckily, we all seemed to share this curiosity.

So much so, while walking back to the hotel one night, a fellow NAJA student discovered a vandalized monument in a lonely corner of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Suspected vandals painted, “Take Em Down, KKK” at its base.

Working as a “news team,” we quickly walked to the scene, photographed the suspected vandalism and contacted authorities. To our surprise, we learned about major planned protests and activist groups vying to get the monuments removed because they are a symbol of white supremacy, they believe.

It was an eye-opening experience, especially, because I never got a return phone call or email from the activist groups. Even when I spoke to average people on the street, I found many people resistant to discussing the subject.

Perhaps the leaders would have been more comfortable talking if I was from New Orleans, or at least understood the context of the debate. It takes trust. It takes patience. It takes building a level of comfort.

It’s a lesson I think many journalists, even veteran journalists, can learn. It takes time to build trust. But it takes even more time to understand the complexities of cultures and communities.

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