Finding Freedom for the Indigenous Press

INDIGENOUS - close-up of grungy vintage typeset word on metal backdrop

Bryan Pollard had only worked as an editor at the Cherokee Phoenix, the oldest Native American newspaper, for a few weeks when he realized the freedom of the indigenous press was in danger.

“I received a call about a recently published story, and the caller was an elected official,” Pollard wrote in his recent article “Troubling Times for Tribal Media” from the Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal. “The call ended with only a thinly veiled threat: If I ran another story like that, my department’s budget might need to be ‘re-examined’.”

Bryan Pollard, a University of Arkansas master’s student in Journalism, was awarded the prestigious John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University to study press freedoms in Indian Country. Photo courtesy Bryan Pollard.

In 2000, the Cherokee Nation passed the Independent Press Act, which protects editorial independence for organizations funded by tribal governments. But, Pollard noted, the law doesn’t protect tribal news media funding, leaving the press susceptible to “undue political influence.”

Since then, Pollard, a University of Arkansas graduate student in Journalism, has studied and worked with the Native American Journalists Association to investigate freedom of the press in Native American communities. In 2019, he was awarded the John S. Knight Fellowship to continue investigating Native American journalism at Stanford University. The Knight Fellowship is one of the top research honors in journalism.

Pollard, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, launched the Red Press Initiative in conjunction the Native American Journalists Association, a project aimed at better understanding press freedom “and what can be done to improve it in Indian Country,” he said. Pollard was president of the Native American Journalists Association for three terms and now serves as director of programs.

As part of the initiative, the Native American Journalists Association surveyed dozens of tribal media managers, producers, and consumers regarding their experiences and beliefs on the freedom of tribal news.

Results from the Red Press Initiative revealed that nearly a quarter of tribal media producers believed stories about tribal affairs are censored or unreported. One-third of media employees say they are required to seek government approval before story publication.

“When media operates as a government mouthpiece, it robs people of their right to know truthful and sometimes critical information about tribal affairs.”

Another significant hindrance to the indigenous press is accessibility. Two-thirds of tribal media consumers said they don’t have access to adequate news on tribal affairs. Pollard decided to dive deeply into this topic for his Knight Fellowship.

“I took that data with me to Stanford, and I started to dissect it,” Pollard said.

Pollard uncovered some significant limits to an impartial indigenous press. For example, most tribal media outlets are funded by tribal government, creating a risk for significant conflicts of interest.

“When media operates as a government mouthpiece, it robs people of their right to know truthful and sometimes critical information about tribal affairs,” Pollard wrote. “And it also robs Indigenous journalists of their freedom to report on the full range of community concerns.”

Pollard’s time at Stanford was cut short when Stanford University announced in March it would suspend in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Knight fellowship still continued “but the things that we were expected to produce were no longer expected,” he said. He returned to his home in Arkansas. “It certainly was not the full experience that it was intended to be,” he said.

Despite the disruption, Pollard is continuing his research on the Native American press with the Native American Journalists Association and is writing a collection of essays about the Native American press. The research on Indigenous press freedom will be the topic of his master’s thesis at the University of Arkansas.

Pollard’s scholarship and activism aims to give a voice to Native Americans, a group he believes is far underrepresented.

“Anyone who is working on the cause of empowering the voice of indigenous people, or other marginalized people in society, is acting in the cause of justice,” Pollard said. “I think to the extent that we can empower the voice of the voiceless, we are acting under the auspices of social justice.”

Further reading:

—Pollard’s article in the IRE Journal, “Troubling times for tribal media”

—Pollard’s article in the American Indian magazine (Smithsonian Institution), “More Than News: Indigenous Media Empowers Native Voices and Communities”

—Pollard’s research presentation to the Media and Civil Rights History Symposium, University of South Carolina: “Tribal Media Decolonized”

Native American Journalists Association

NAJA guide with preferred term usage for journalists covering Indian Country

Michael Adkison
Michael Adkison

Michael Adkison is a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas and a graduate assistant for the student media program.