Deciding who is news

One way our view of the world is shaped is by what news is covered, and what news is not covered.

In journalism, there’s a well-known Wall Street Journal story that ran Feb. 25, 1982. It dealt with 23 heterosexuals who had acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The newspaper had ignored AIDS until then because it was only affecting gays. The newspaper thus telegraphed its view that gays and their issues were not legitimate news, even when it involved life and death.

I was reminded of that last week when I covered a national conference in Reno. From 800 to 1,000 delegates to the National Congress of American Indians came from across the nation to meet on public policy problems facing tribal governments and to be ignored by journalism. The National Congress is believed to be the largest all-Native American organization in the nation.

It wasn’t easy to ignore this conference. Among the issues under discussion were tribal anti-terrorism measures, international trade, climate change, tissue donations, water. It was possible to walk around the convention area and find story ideas all over the floor.

Also heightening the newsworthiness of the conference were two Native American developments in national news during the conference — a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Native American child custody case and creation by President Barack Obama of a new Council on Native American Affairs.

But journalism, local and national, paid no attention to the conference. In the case of Nevada journalism, this was a particularly striking lapse — Nevada has 29 colonies or reservations representing the Washoe, Goshute, Paiute and Shoshone.

In 1971, when the National Congress also met in Reno, the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal both gave it front page coverage and considerable length. The New York Times sent one of its world-class reporters — two-time Pulitzer winner Homer Bigart — to cover the conference.

In 1994, another meeting of the National Congress in Reno became the topic of Washington Post syndicated columnist Colman McCarthy.

But this year, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Reno Gazette Journal — successor to the two Reno newspapers — all ignored the event, which communicated powerfully how important journalism considers Native Americans.

Former four-term National Congress President Joe Garcia told me that if nontribal news entities had 20 stories on Native Americans from which to choose — 19 on tribal progress and one on tribal conflict — they would choose the conflict.

That comment did not surprise me. Over the years I have found tribes to be pretty sophisticated about white media. Around 1993, when I was working for KTVN in Reno, I pitched a story idea of covering a “Conference on the Family” at Nixon, Nev., on the Pyramid Lake reservation. Our news director vetoed the idea. Around the same time, there was a dispute among factions at Pyramid over the tribal police force. Our news director did send me out to cover that story. What I found was that no one in the tribe would talk to us. Since we tended to show up only on these kinds of stories instead of a cross section, we had no credibility with them.

One National Congress delegate told me he believed participants in the conference were using social media to get news out, thus rendering reporters from traditional news entities unnecessary.

During the National Congress in Reno last week, after ignoring the Native American speakers and tribal representatives for the first three days, a major news entity — The Associated Press — showed up on the fourth and last day to cover a speech by a member of Obama’s Cabinet, new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Soon the AP story was posted on news sites from coast to coast. The big story to emerge from the National Congress of American Indians was a speech by a white.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.