4/20/2007 1:27:31 PM (CST)
How journalists reported the Cherokee-Freedmen story
BUFFALO, N.Y. – A recent study looked at journalistic coverage of the Cherokee Nation March 3 vote on an amendment to its constitution that ended tribal citizenship for descendants of the Freedmen, not otherwise connected with Cherokee lineage.
The research analyzed mainstream news media presentation of the story, specifically how they dealt with sometimes competing issues such as the CN’s sovereignty and citizenship issues of the Freedmen. It also looked at the news sources cited or quoted in the reports and the balance between sources on either side of the issue.
“In general, this was reported as a classic clash between oppressor and victim,” Ron Smith, communication professor and the study’s principal, said. “Missing were nuance, historical perspective and a context within which to understand the contemporary significance of the story.”
The study, released March 22, was conducted by the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College. It reported the following additional findings:
* Spokespeople on both sides of the issue had their say in the news stories, but the Freedmen opponents to the amendment generally were quoted before news sources associated with the Cherokee Nation.
* Both issues of racism and self-determination were discussed, but the racism theme figured more prominently (sooner) in the story than the tribal governance or sovereignty theme.
* Few reports gave details or context to the vote itself, either the voting numbers or the voter turnout.
* Nearly two-thirds of the reports raised the money issue, generally without supporting information, as a factor motivating the vote.
* Most of the articles highlighted the slave-owning history of the Cherokees, but fewer explained the incorporation of former slaves into the tribe or the confusion created by the Dawes Commission.
The research reviewed published news reports and broadcast transcripts between Feb. 27 and March 10. It focused on headlines, leads, quoted news sources, statistical information about the vote and presentation of information about money and about the historical context. It also looked at the use of terms such as “racist” and “sovereign.”
“Overall, this is another instance of mainstream media failing to understand the complexity of an issue involving American Indians and their oversimplification of an intricate situation,” Smith said, who has conducted other research on media presentation of news focused on Native American topics. “We look at how the media ‘frames’ the story, whose version gets top billing, what themes are presented.”
Smith said the media coverage, because it lacked a historical context, covered the story as an example of an Indian nation versus African Americans.
“Some of the reports used terms such as ‘kick out’ and ‘disown.’ Several headlines screamed ‘racism,’ such as one that read: ‘Cherokees Accused of Racist Plot as Sons of Slaves Are Cast Out,’” he said.
By a ratio of 5-to-1, Freedmen sources were the first quoted in the reports. Most of the reports used the term “racism,” with two-third of those in the lead or opening paragraphs. By contrast, while three-quarters of the articles implied the concept of sovereignty, only 12 percent used the term “sovereignty.”
Few published reports noted the legal relationship of the Cherokees in particular or Native tribes and nations in general. Half of the articles mentioned the Dawes Commission that loomed large in the history of the controversy, but most of those without explanation.
A full text of the research report is available online at http://www.buffalostate.edu/communication (American Indian Initiative).
– Buffalo State College Communications