News and Indian Country

Journalistic theories

My head is wrapped around academic theories as a graduate student—Mami Kikuchi–and I polish a journal article due in August.

I’m struggling with theories I began thinking about while working on my doctorate in Madison, Wisconsin. Up north, a large mining company was set to build a copper mine on Indian territory near the town of Ladysmith in the early 1990s, and I looked at how different newspapers—mainstream, Indian, small-town and green party—framed the story. The dissertation also includes interviews of editors and their views on the role of the newspaper in their communities.

One unexpected finding was that the Indian newspaper covered the story in much the same way as the large, daily mainstream newspaper. Most likely this is a structural and organizational effect, in that, in order to gain and maintain journalistic legitimacy, the Indian press felt it needed to adhere to the same journalistic standards as mainstream press.

In contrast, the green party newspaper had no trouble framing its coverage ideologically: what did it have to lose by showing its bias? Meantime, the local Ladysmith newspaper editorially endorsed the mine as a savior to the community, while welcoming paid advertising from the mine owners. (See the book Dressing in Feathers for my chapter on framing).

To think about newspapers as extensions of their communities requires some mind-bending exercises. A human heuristic is to imagine that individuals—not structures—influence their communities. But if you’ve ever worked in a large organization, you know how hard it can be to effect change. Same with newspapers: they function as structures. While it’s true that sometimes individuals famously change journalistic practices (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate) it is a rare event. Watch Fox news and you assume that the reporters are politically conservative, but the real influence is embedded within the structure of the news organization (look at the video Outfoxed for evidence http://www.outfoxed.org/)

The theoretical underpinning suggests that the way communities are structured influences how news is selected, produced and framed. Small towns that are more homogenous—whose citizens share common beliefs, values, religion, education and economic capital—are more likely to reflect such values in coverage, resulting in more narrow perspectives. On the other end of the spectrum are large, heterogeneous communities (think Los Angeles and Atlanta) which, in turn, influence news organizations that reflect more diversity—politically, ideologically and economically.

Theorists refer to this as community pluralism, where a plurality of perspectives exists. Key is that the diversity of views is reflected in local policymaking, and hence, community pluralism results in political pluralism, where folks with different values struggle to have their voices included in decision-making. Textbooks suggest that such pluralism creates more democratic outcomes.

Interesting that the community of Indian journalists in the Ladysmith mine case study reflected more diversity in coverage, much like the more heterogeneous communities in Wisconsin, and unlike homogeneous communities, thus putting the theory in a tailspin. One explanation is that the community of journalists in Indian country is driven by journalistic standards rather than Indian values. Their efforts to report in objective style freeze ideological bias in its tracks.

Readers who wanted to hear critiques of the mine had to turn to the opinion-editorial pages of the Indian newspaper, which were packed with letters and commentaries. As a result, the newspaper had a sort of split personality: hard news reflected straight coverage (often from the mainstream wire service) while the editorial pages were rich with beliefs and values.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias. Bookmark the permalink.

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