NAJA asks Indian Country Today Media Network for apology following headline

Posted by Mary Hudetz on 08/06/2014

Dear Mr. Halbritter,

When Indian Country Today hit newsstands in 1981, it served as one of the only national outlets for Native American news in the country. Up-and-coming Indigenous journalists were able to build careers and followings thanks to the publication, and the United States was also able to learn about the many struggles and issues Native Americans faced.

Since those early days, many things have changed: The publication has gone from newsprint to digital only, and the journalism has started to move from abiding by the high, ethical standards followed by daily newspapers and leading media outlets to those more congruent with social media-driven entertainment websites.

Strategic business decisions might very well be behind ICTMN’s recent editorial choices and, of course, it is at your complete discretion to run your operation in the best way you see fit—even if, from a journalistic standpoint, there have been moments of disappointment in seeing sensational headlines clearly geared toward boosting Web traffic, as well as posts with divisive, racial undertones that fall short of bringing clarity to some of the most important issues in Indian Country of our time.

The most egregious example of irresponsible editorial judgment came to our attention today when ICTMN staff ran a post with this headline “Rate That Genocide: Which Was Worse, Slavery Or Treatment Of Native Americans.” The brief was based on a Vanity Fair article, and we feel we must respond expressing our concern.

Genocide is real and should never be compared or rated with other crimes against humanity. It should never be used to stir attention or generate social-media shares.

At worst, your staff failed to understand the seriousness of the subject matter and used the unsettling headline to bate people to your site and drive up ICTMN Web traffic before directing them to vanityfair.com.

At best, your staff wanted to highlight the unfortunate Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll that asked people to choose from slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the Vietnam War, Iraq War and the bombing of Hiroshima in ranking “the biggest ethical misjudgment in U.S. history.”

But even in a best-case scenario, ICTMN’s efforts would have fallen short of adding to the post valuable thought-driven context, a central part of our jobs as journalists. And even in a best-case scenario, there is no defense for the headline. 

ICTMN is one of the most visible online voices when it comes to Native America, which means sound newsroom judgment and following clear ethical guidelines should be considered your journalistic responsibility. 

We hold all news outlets accountable for unethical behavior, be it Native or non-Native. But it’s especially disheartening to see an outlet that says it aims to serve Native people show such a level of insensitivity. 

The Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll was misguided and we are discussing a response to it as well. But we are addressing your misstep first, in part, because—and, we can’t stress this enough—the idea that an outlet that proclaims to serve Native people could be capable of such insensitivity is, in a word, disheartening. The editorial priorities at ICTMN have been trending in the wrong direction for far too long, and we are saddened that the pattern of irresponsibility has led to this moment.

We ask that Indian Country Today apologize for the headline and institute a sound policy of publishing correction logs when corrections are made to stories. We also encourage you to provide staff with journalism ethics trainings. We can help on this front.

We realize our criticisms are strongly worded, but we are hopeful that you will take them in the spirit for which they are intended—to improve Native journalism. We would welcome a chance to discuss these issues with you and will offer any help we can to facilitate these changes.

Again, as one of the most recognized brands in Indian Country, we would like to see a return to the values that once made your publication great.  

Sincerely,

Mary Hudetz, President

Native American Journalists Association