What we learned from interviewing Indigenous community members about news media

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 07/19/2022, 4:21 PM
Edited: 07/19/2022, 4:28 PM

(TULSA, Okla.) From May 16 to July 15, Verified News Network (VNN) conducted a series of interviews with local members of federally recognized tribes. Participants were mainly from the Muscogee Creek Nation. Other tribes included Cherokee and Blackfoot. 

This listening project was facilitated by Trusting News, a collaboration between the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute. The goals of the project were to find community members who have low trust in news, explore what contributes to their views, and learn how to efficiently build useful outreach and listening into newsroom routines moving forward.

“The feedback we received during this project was very eye-opening, even though I expected some of the responses we heard,” VNN President and CEO Kelly Tidwell said. “This learning solidifies our mission to share more Native and other underrepresented news across our network.” 

After conducting 30-minute interviews with eight people over the past two months, VNN was able to draw several recurring themes from these conversations. 

The most common feedback we received is the view that Indigenous coverage is mainly negative in mainstream news (7/8). 

Interviewees said Indigenous people are commonly portrayed as the enemy, and they believe news media is just another mechanism to knock Indigenous people down. Positive news coverage of Indigenous is believed to be too brief if covered at all. Coverage of the McGirt ruling was used as an example multiple times to highlight negative coverage, drawn in comparison to what little coverage is given to the Standing Rock pipeline battle that continues to this day. 

The belief that news media is not representative of real life was another recurring theme over the course of our interviews (6/8). 


Interviewees told us they believe there is not enough context built into crime stories, and not enough historical context when Indigenous stories are reported. We were also told news mostly depicts just white people or Black people, as if those two races were the only that existed. 

The third most common theme was the lack of Indigenous representation in mainstream media (6/8). According to the last census, nearly 10 percent of Oklahomans described themselves as American Indian. But interviewees said they do not see many if any Indigenous television news reporters during broadcasts. 

Looking at the most recent data from the United States Census Bureau, Indigenous analysts, reporters, and journalists across the US don’t even register on the scale, despite making up 3 percent of the country’s population. 

American Indian and Alaskan Native data is not available at all in the latest data table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Interviewees also discussed their distrust for people outside of their tribe (5/8). 

Contributing factors included generational trauma and subsequent distrust of others in general, the unspoken tradition of not asking or answering questions, and the historical and continued practice of outsiders who only take from the tribes without giving back. 

We were told that only those who show up and serve the community on a regular basis will earn trust, through a continued relationship. 

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The final recurring theme for more than half of the interviewees was the belief that news media has been corrupted by personal relationships (5/8). This includes the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments and various news media. 

Interviewees said they believe news media is too pro-government and tied to politics. They also said they believe wealthy corporations who own news networks have too much control over what and how news is covered and set specific agendas to serve themselves. 

Additional insights worth mentioning include those who receive news through word of mouth (4/8), the belief that mainstream media has just one narrative (4/8), and that a cultural focus should be more prevalent not just in news coverage but in all interactions with Indigenous citizens (4/8). 

VNN received multiple story ideas from interviewees during this interview process, which we plan to roll out over the next several months. 

As a Muscogee Creek-citizen owned news network, we are also working to provide more Indigenous representation across our company. This includes a recent submission for funding from Google's News Equity Fund to hire an Indigenous journalist. 

If you have any feedback you would like to provide on this or any upcoming project, please email bharlow@verifiednews.network 


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