Don’t Stop the PressesMay 15th, 1994 | By pboyer | Category: 6-1: Media and Information, Editor's Essay
There is no shortage of information in Indian communities. Newspapers, radio and television make their way onto even the most isolated reservations. “One need only drive from Window Rock to Tuba City [Arizona] and see satellite dishes next to hogans to know that the reservation is changing,” writes researcher George Baldwin in the Journal of Navajo Education.
But this observation provides little comfort to many scholars and Indian leaders. Instead, it only confirms the growing concern that reservations have access to too much of the wrong kind of information. Even as the volume of words and images grows nationwide, most Indian societies remain observers, not participants, in the Information Age. News coverage of Indian issues is minimal, and there is little opportunity for Native Americans to tell their own stories.
Critics of the mainstream media point to what they consider simplistic and overly negative images of Indians and their societies. Poverty, alcoholism and tribal government disputes gain coverage, they assert, while stories of hope and cultural survival rarely get noticed. As a result, most Americans know little about the complexity of contemporary Indian life.
But concern about media coverage should go deeper than a frustration over stereotyped images on NBC or factual errors in the New York Times. Instead, it must also be recognized that the press has a vital role to play in tribal development and sovereignty. To truly serve Indian nations, the press must be more than sensitive, it must be responsive to the unique information needs of tribal societies.
All nations—including tribal nations—make decisions, set policy, and define their international relations in response to the information they receive. Governments or institutions that rely on outdated, inappropriate or inaccurate information will always be at a disadvantage.
An active press is, then, not just a right in a free society, it is a vital tool in nation building. “In a culturally pluralistic society, the survival of minority values is related to the control of information created about, for, and by one’s group,” writes Baldwin.
If a tribe considers itself a sovereign nation, then it must acknowledge the important role the media have to play. It must encourage accurate portrayals of Native Americans in the mainstream press, but it must also nurture its own media and gain access to the emerging electronic information networks.
Those who study the media confirm that information follows the path of existing power, meaning that it originates in powerful nations and flows to everyone else. Meanwhile, significantly less information about less powerful nations goes the other direction, since there is little perceived need to follow the affairs of those who have little influence and pose no threat.
As recently as 30 years ago, researchers believed that this dominance of foreign media in developing nations was a positive influence. Through the power of its words and images, it could inspire even fundamental change by providing views of a developed world that could then be imitated in developing nations.
Such thinking was based on the early belief that development would result from the successful duplication of the West’s industrial revolution. Advocating the theory of development though modernization, William Schram argued in 1964 that communication could reach out and “rouse people from fatalism and fear” in order to effect change by, in part, raising aspirations of its citizens. He wrote:
By showing modem equipment and life in economically well-developed societies, by disseminating news of development from far away, by carrying political, economic, social and cultural reports from everywhere in the country and the world, the media can create an intellectual climate which stimulates people to take another look at their own current practices and future perspective.
Schram, like most researchers, was thinking of Third World nations, not Indian tribes. But the two are similar in important ways. Tribes and developing nations both struggle with severely limited resources to sustain economic, political and cultural sovereignty. In both cases, the ability of the national press to act as watchmen for the nation is also limited. As a result, foreign media had a disproportionate influence.
It is not surprising, however, that this vision never materialized in either the Third World or Indian reservations. The press was not all-powerful and, it was finally acknowledged, not all cultures yearned to look and live like My Three Sons.
But if Indian tribes are not going to rely exclusively on Western culture and the federal government for guidance, then where are they going to get the information and inspiration needed to build strong societies? How will they learn about the wishes of tribal members? How will they learn about the progress of other Native communities, across the state or around the globe? How will they keep track of policy issues in Washington, D.C. that may be of little interest to most Americans, but can have serious implications for American Indians?
Indian issues are occasionally seen as trendy, but they are rarely viewed as a major policy issue for the nation. It is not surprising, then, that press coverage of Indian issues is seen as superficial and inadequate by many American Indian leaders. Simply put: the mainstream media cannot be expected to reliably serve the broad needs of Indian societies because it is not their mission to do so.
Instead, there is growing understanding that the Indian-owned media has the most important role to play. Able to reflect the values of their communities and be most attentive to its needs, the Native press is being recognized as a powerful force for social change.
By one estimate, there are about 350 tribal newspapers in the United States. Radio is also an established institution on many reservations and the number of television stations continues to climb. There are also a growing number of independent Indian-owned newspapers that have expanded from regional to national publications. One, Indian Country Today, now supports a Washington bureau with a full-time Indian reporter.
The significance of this growth cannot be overstated. These media offer American Indians a voice that can be heard across the country. But of special importance they draw information into their communities and are attentive to local concerns, which is the real function of the press in any nation.
There are concerns. Tribally controlled media are often criticized for being thinly veiled public relations vehicles. Editors or station managers of tribally-supported media who defy the wishes of the tribal council may do so at risk of unemployment. Some argue that this degree of control is acceptable if its public relations role is made clear.
Limited resources may also restrict the media’s effectiveness. If a newspaper or station cannot support its own network of correspondents, then it may rely too heavily on the mainstream media by merely reprinting or rebroadcasting news that first appeared elsewhere.
It is also increasingly important to participate in the electronic information networks. Even as tribes gain a foothold in the world of print and radio, some fear they are falling behind in the world of on-line communication and CD-ROM. The technical expertise is not being developed and, equally important, the cost of participating in this form of communication is often prohibitive.
An active press cannot, on its own, build stronger societies. But it does have an important role to play. In tribal nations, the growing vitality of Indian- owned media offers reason for hope.
Paul Boyer is editor of Tribal College.