Shasta Scout editor Annelise Pierce and associate editor Marc Dadigan share some insights on why coverage of Native news is crucial for our present and future.
Shasta Scout subscribers opened their inbox July 19 to an interesting email titled “Too Much Native News?”
InIn the email, Shasta Scout publisher Annelise Pierce shared reader feedback suggesting that “recently Scout’s featured a lot of Native News — can we have more local stories?” A comment that perhaps seemed harmless to the person who made it, but certainly not to Pierce, who (kindly) responded: “Our stories about the local Indigenous community are local stories.” She went on to suggest that Shasta County residents have so far failed to recognize the importance of Indigenous people within their local communities, and she explained why it’s relevant for Shasta Scout to ensure that diverse community members are seen and heard.
Pierce saw an opportunity to reinforce Shasta Scout’s values and double down on what matters most. “Equity isn’t just a buzzword, it’s about making sure the voices we most need to hear from are amplified so we can actually hear them over the voices we’re used to centering. I’m very proud that we’re beginning to do that at Shasta Scout,” she explained.
The request for “more local stories” as opposed to Native news is far from harmless. It is in fact dangerous because, as stated by two of Shasta Scout’s subscribers who responded to the newsletter, it perpetuates an “us and them” narrative — a narrative Shasta Scout refused to entertain.
For this iteration of Behind the Story, we reached out to the editorial team — Pierce, who serves as Shasta Scout editor, and Marc Dadigan, associate editor covering Indigenous affairs and the environment, to hear more about their equity-centered journalistic values and how they go about reporting for their local Native communities.
Annelise Pierce: When a reader reached out saying they were tired of reading Native stories, I assumed their opinions might represent other readers. Regardless, I knew it never hurts to explain to our audience why we make the editorial decisions that we do, especially with something as fundamental as our approach to Indigenous reporting. And since I had already put time and emotional labor into responding to one naysayer, I felt it was worthwhile to find a way to reuse that content somewhere else.
Marc Dadigan: I had already written an Open Notebook piece explaining why the Indigenous Affairs beat is important, but I knew the attitude expressed by the reader probably existed. Over the years working with the local Native community, I’ve heard a smattering of similar comments whenever there was a sudden spurt of Indigenous visibility and representation. So I think Annelise did an amazing job seizing the opportunity to continue the dialogue and pro-actively share her insightful response to the rest of our audience.
Pierce: We had more reader responses to this newsletter than any other in our first year and almost every response was extremely positive. We had just one response that was neutral – saying they would like to see more of other news too. In addition to lots of “great job! Keep it up!” comments, I also received powerful messages about how our stance at Shasta Scout is affecting other newsrooms’ by encouraging them to keep equity central to their journalism, and to find ways to explain that decision to their readers.
Pierce: Although we have a dense local Indigenous community here in what is now known as Shasta County, there has never been much coverage of Native community members, especially positive coverage that highlights diverse individuals’ contributions to local art, history, culture, science, etc. Unfortunately it’s a situation that’s not at all uncommon for local media, both historically, and currently. The truth is that Native voices have been intentionally erased from the American story throughout our history as a nation.
Dadigan: This erasure is present at the local level as well, as many communities’ origin stories and histories often ignore Native peoples or the entire process of colonization. This creates incredible historical blindspots that hamper communities’ ability to understand themselves as well as their ability to build a better future. Not only is including Native peoples a matter of equity, but Native people also have a unique vantage point on many local issues because of their long memory both of their ancestral lands and local institutions. They’ve been here since the beginning.
Pierce: That’s why, at Shasta Scout, we’ve made it a foundational part of our mission to highlight Native voices and issues in a way that’s integrated into our local community coverage.
We’re also very aware that we cover an area that is already deeply affected by climate change. In Shasta County, we are experiencing severe heat waves, devastating effects from drought and terrifying wildfires. Indigenous knowledge and stewardship practices hold solutions to climate repair, which is one reason it’s critical to our community’s future that we center those voices through our coverage.
Dadigan: It’s important to note that the Indigenous Affairs beat would be in a far more nascent place if I had not developed working relationships with local Native folks over the last 12 years as a freelance journalist as well as a community organizer/mental health educator prior to joining Scout. So my advice is to develop the beat slowly and with care. The process matters as much as the product.
Because Native people have and continue to experience colonial-style extraction, both from their lands as well as their stories and knowledges, maintaining reciprocal and respectful relationships with sources and contributors is essential. In that vein, I also think it’s essential that I continue to spend time in the community just as a human, just connecting, catching up and sharing of myself in an authentic way that has nothing to do with any story I’m writing. This is true for many sources, but I think when working with Native sources in a local community it’s vitally important to make it clear you’re committed to developing a relationship that’s deeper than the usual journalist-source binary. On a practical level this might mean doing things that journalists typically don’t do —washing some dishes at a ceremony, giving a community member a lift to something you’re covering, sharing photos you take or interesting research you uncover, sharing some things about your own life with trusted sources, etc.
In regards to my coverage, when I’m pitching stories I’m often thinking of what will build the most trust with the community in the long-term, and not just about what is the most timely or newsworthy story at the moment. It’s key to be committed for the long haul and to approach the beat in that way.
Reporters should definitely take the time to learn the actual history of the colonization of their communities, which is all too often ignored with whitewashed local mythologies about “pioneers.” I also think it will help to learn about key concepts that relate to the beat like settler colonialism, genocide and traditional ecological knowledge. Too often, reporters who lack this basic knowledge falsely frame some Indigenous issues as “controversies,” which can reduce trust.
It’s also essential that publications have a very well-informed, shared vision for the coverage of Indigenous communities among all the reporters and that it’s passed down as people leave and new staff come in. At other publications, I’ve noticed the quality of the coverage can vary immensely by reporter, and that is also something that can damage trust.
Dadigan: One reason I’ve long wanted to help establish a local Indigenous Affairs beat is because there has always been so much dynamic and inspiring local Indigenous news that wasn’t being covered locally. I like to think that the Non-Native community has gained a stronger sense of the Native community’s contributions as well as their accomplishments, often against overwhelming odds.
We also have gotten a few messages from readers and sources who are interested in trying to return land to local tribes or help them secure some funding for tribal projects. Because many of our stories are steeped in local history that has often been suppressed, I think some readers have gained a deeper understanding of the historical injustices that need to be remedied and how doing so can help heal the community as a whole.
Pierce: On a personal note, learning from the stories from our Indigenous beat has been one the most rewarding parts of my job over the last year. The voices and perspectives of Native community members published on Scout have enriched my understanding of our shared community and changed how I imagine my future, and that of my children. Some of Marc’s stories about Native history and lifeways have made me cry while others have sat with me for days, doing a deeper work in my heart, teaching me how to be both more human and more connected to the rest of the ecosystem we share. As journalists we’re always looking outward for impact, but sometimes some of the biggest and most important work is happening right inside of us, making change that begins to ripple outwards into our lives and work.
Pierce: We’ve just applied for money through the Google News Equity fund to begin providing broader and deeper regional coverage of Indigenous and environmental stories. We believe that dedicated coverage by and for Indigenous people across Northern California is fundamental to the health and future of the state as a whole and we’re excited to provide that kind of coverage of California’s far north. We look forward to hiring an Indigenous editor to lead this work.
Dadigan: I also am hoping to have time to organize more formal public engagement and feedback from the community, through our surveys as well as perhaps as some in-person or Zoom meetings.
Pierce: Native peoples are part of our communities. They aren’t a separate equity or diversity beat, they’re the humans all around us, whose thoughts and ideas, words and work, contribute to a healthy social ecosystem. Making sure we take the time to see and listen to Native peoples and find ways to uplift their words and stories, is central to the work of community journalism that we’re all here for.
Dadigan: It’s important to remember that Tribes are sovereign (though what sovereignty means to them may vary from community to community). So you wouldn’t start a publication that covers Europe and ignore, say, the United Kingdom or France. But that is essentially what happens when local Indigenous people are excluded from the reporting that is taking place on their ancestral homelands where they’ve lived for millennia. Emphasizing the coverage of Indigenous issues will challenge a lot of what many of us non-Natives think they know about history and what it means to be human, but it will inevitably lead to our readers developing a better understanding of the place they live and how to face many of our world’s challenges. I also think the impact of Annelise’s essay indicates non-Native readers are hungrier for these stories and perspectives than I realized.