Native American Journalists Association & UNITY: Journalists for Diversity Question Methodology, Accuracy & Ethical Considerations of Recent Washington Post Survey

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Published May 21, 2016

NORMAN, OKLAHOMA — The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) expresses concern and disappointment about the May 19, 2016, Washington Post story “New poll finds 9 in 10 Native Americans aren’t offended by R******* name.”

Not only does the reporting fail to pass the test of accurate and ethical reporting, it also attempts to legitimize a defined racial slur and is an egregious example of creating the news rather than simply reporting it.

Accuracy is the foundation of good journalism. However, the methodology used to conduct this poll was fundamentally flawed and as a result, its data set and all conclusions reached are inherently inaccurate and misleading.

The poll – sponsored and funded by the Post – is flawed in its methodology. It relies completely on “self-identified” Native American respondents in its sampling. It is a known and commonly debated issue in Indian Country that “self-identity” is not a reliable indicator of indigenous tribal ancestry. There are numerous available examples of statistical data sets, including the U.S. Census, that are skewed by non-Native individuals claiming to be Native American based on personal belief rather than verifiable citizenship with a tribal nation, or verifiable lineage from a tribal citizen.

The Post even admits it is difficult to survey Native Americans but ignored those challenges to get an opinion on “R*******” despite the obvious conflict-of-interest the Post has in covering the team as it is a key part of its coverage and business model. The Post survey also cites the U.S. Census as a guide to surveying Native Americans which the bureau has admitted is problematic.

Only 44 percent of the individuals interviewed claimed to be tribal citizens – the remaining 56 percent claimed to be Native American but were not tribal citizens. In other words, more than half of those interviewed were likely not Native American. And although the opinions are as diverse as our nearly 570 federally recognized nations, the claims that 90 percent of enrolled and non-enrolled members are not offended is questionable at best.

The reporting suggests that the use of a dictionary-defined racial slur by Washington’s NFL team is a nuanced debate that should be subject to public opinion. It is our contention that the continued use of a racial epithet is an act of overt racism that is harmful to an entire segment of American society, in particular its young people.

The American Psychological Association released a statement in 2005 calling for the permanent discontinuance of Native American mascots based on a growing body of scientific research. The conclusion was that these mascots are harmful.

“Research has shown that the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities has a negative effect on not only American Indian students but all students by:

  • Undermining the educational experiences of members of all communities – especially those who have little-to-no contact with indigenous peoples …
  • Establishes an unwelcome and oftentimes hostile learning environment for American Indian student that affirms negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society …
  • Undermines the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions …
  • Presents stereotypical images of American Indians …
  • Is a form of discrimination against American Indian Nations that can lead to negative relations between groups.”

According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a tenet of responsible journalism is to minimize harm when reporting: “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

By framing this story as simply a matter of public opinion, the Post has willfully ignored the harm – referenced by the APA statement – that will inevitably result from its coverage. The reporters and editors behind this story must have known that it would be used as justification for the continued use of these harmful, racist mascots. They were either willfully malicious or dangerously naïve in the process and reporting used in this story, and neither is acceptable from any journalistic institution.

Another issue of concern is that the Post would devote the time and resources to a national survey of Native Americans about whether or not a racial slur was acceptable, instead of conducting a poll that explored more pressing issues including lack of access to education and healthcare to whether basic human rights are violated or enjoyed by Indigenous communities. The Post opted to sponsor, fund and publish a story that was concerned more with NFL corporate interests than public impact.

The Washington Post should immediately review its journalism practices and examine potential conflicts of interest in its newsroom. If the organization is truly concerned about acting with integrity and credibility, it should investigate its mistakes and recognize when reporting practices are not in line with accepted ethical standards. NAJA looks forward to discussing this with Editor Marty Baron and the leadership of the Post on ways the outlet can improve its coverage of Native Americans and hire Native American journalists in its newsroom – something it currently lacks.

It is NAJA’s position that journalism should only be practiced when it is in the interest of public enlightenment and democracy, and should never be used as a tool of racial oppression or corporate cheerleading.

To learn more, please visit the NAJA Mascots and Media resource page.

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