Law enforcement agencies nationwide were rightly criticized last week for a decades-long practice of not adequately identifying or reporting cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. A report issued by the Urban Indian Health Institute found 506 cases in 71 cities over the past eight years, though the Seattle-based nonprofit estimated the actual number may be much higher.
The group may never know the exact number, because some police departments in cities with significant Native American populations, mostly in the West, have refused to respond to records requests. Fortunately, Washington state enacted a law in June that requires the State Patrol to determine a better way to collect and share data about missing indigenous women.
It was heartening that the report, nearly a decade in the making, made front-page headlines in many outlets throughout the West and prompted some national organizations, such as NPR, to cover the story.
But one aspect of the report not widely reported last week — in fact, never mentioned in the Associated Press story that ran in the Herald-Republic — was that 95 percent of the 506 cases detailed in the UIHI’s study were never covered by the national media. In fact, only a quarter of the cases, the report found, were covered by local or regional media outlets, and just 14 percent of those were covered more than once.
The media, often so adept at reporting on others, sometimes does not report on its own shortcomings. Such a dearth of reporting about indigenous women, the study’s authors conclude, “leads the general public to have an inaccurate understanding of the issue.” Lack of coverage, the report adds, “limits our ability to address this issue at policy, programming and advocacy levels.”
The group calls for “more sustained and in-depth” coverage from news organizations. It also reported that 31 percent of media outlets that covered missing-women cases used racist or misogynous language and stereotyping, with overt references to a victim’s drug or alcohol use, history as a sex worker or previous criminal history – what the group calls “victim blaming.”
Over the past year, the Herald-Republic has made a commitment to increase its coverage of missing and murdered Native American women, both on the Yakama Nation reservation and throughout the Valley. Since last November, the paper has published 21 stories, many of which were in-depth profiles and policy explanations written by Tammy Ayer. There is a paper-wide commitment to continue to aggressively — and humanely — follow up on the issue. But it also is important for us to report on other aspects on life among the Yakamas and other indigenous people in the Valley.
Focusing on diverse subject matter is vital to give a well-rounded picture. In its report, the UIHI scolded media outlets because, when they covered the indigenous people, they did so only about crime and not broader cultural aspects of their communities. Here, too, the Herald-Republic has worked hard to present an array of stories. Ayer and other reporters have written, among other pieces, about native music awards, native female students participating in summer STEM classes, the art of native weaving and a tribal member who wrote and directed a film.
The media need to be steadfast in not solely focusing on crime involving indigenous people, said Tristan Ahtone, the president of the Native American Journalist Association. In fact, his organization recently produced a bingo card for “reporting in Indian County.” All the clichés to avoid are listed, everything from “casino” to “diabetes,” from “dancing” to “broken families,” from “references to ancestors” to “something ‘sacred.’”
“Generally, when we’re looking at non-native media coverage on issues in Indian Country, the big problem is they don’t do three-dimensional stories,” Ahtone told us. “Typically, it’s something really negative and bleak. Sometimes, in stories, the bingo card gets blacked out. The card is tongue-in-cheek, but helps reporters notice their rhetorical biases.”
Don’t misunderstand: Neither the UIHI nor Ahtone want to see non-Native American media outlets stop reporting on missing and murdered indigenous women. But what advocates would just like is more nuanced and balanced depictions of the community as a whole.
Just as law enforcement agencies must be held accountable to help make sure underreporting cases of violence against Native American women does not continue, so, too, does mass media need to be vigilant in depicting life on and off the reservation in all its facets.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.