Rapid City Journal responds to NAJA concerns over irresponsible headline

Posted by Rebecca Landsberry on 02/01/2015

The Rapid City Journal published a regrettable headline and flawed story on Saturday that represents one of the more troubling examples of irresponsible coverage of Native Americans in recent years. The newspaper has begun to address the problematic headline but further measures should be taken both in the short-term and long-term.

The newspaper's headline "Did Native students stand for National Anthem?" ran with its top story in the Saturday print edition -- the latest in the paper's coverage of how children from the Pine Ridge Reservation became the target of racially charged insults. The headline fell short of the standards of responsible journalism, as it indirectly suggested that elementary and middle school students could have been responsible for prompting the harassment. The headline was the result of phrasing that was not well thought out on the paper's part, and outcry over the headline has been swift in the Rapid City region and beyond via social media.    

The Native American Journalists Association has emailed both Journal Executive Editor Bart Pfankuch and Lee Enterprises Vice President of News Joyce Dehli, expressing our organization's deep disappointment. The story comes amid otherwise responsible coverage of how one or more people attending a hockey game as guests of a beer distributor verbally insulted students, and sprayed or threw beer at them. 

Lee Enterprises owns the Rapid City Journal

It's unfortunate that a single story tainted the coverage of the case for the Journal, especially since the newspaper has been at the front end of informing the public of developments this past week, with both reporting and commentary. In his response to NAJA, Pfankuch promised that aggressive coverage of this story on the newspaper's part would continue. More from Pfankuch, who notes a long track record of addressing racial inequality throughout his career:

The Rapid City Journal has been the primary source for information on what really happened, and the outcry of anger and disappointment, and the response of various public and civic center officials, law enforcement and many others who have commented in columns or letters to the editor. Across the board, the newspaper’s coverage has been in strong condemnation of what took place there, including in a strongly worded editorial that ran last week. It called upon all of us, as human beings, to step up and stop racism when it occurs.

We will continue to follow this story aggressively as our community continues to face its own demons and those who would perpetuate racism in any form. And we as an institution will continue to try our hardest to bridge gaps and not deepen them, and I personally remain committed to ending racism in any form against any person or group of persons. I have spent much of my 24-year career attempt to do just that.

NAJA is optimistic the Journal will take measures, but does insist that an apology, perhaps in the form of a published advisory or published letter from the editor, is needed to better acknowledge fault on the newspaper's part. Improving the headline of the story online is a good step but, again, more needs to be done. 

"I have faith that the Rapid City Journal can right this wrong and rebuild its trust with the Native American community if further steps are taken," said Mary Hudetz, president of NAJA. "It's important news organizations do what they can to take advantage of resources made available by NAJA and other groups to improve their coverage, and in the long term, more mainstream outlets in Indian Country need to hire Native American staffers so they are better positioned to avoid these instances in the future."  

Here's more on the troubling headline and why NAJA, as a journalism organization, finds it and elements of the story so problematic:

  • Whether intentionally or not, the newspaper was party to victim blaming because of a headline based on an anonymous source's disputed allegations.

  • The headline suggests a decision by adults or children to stand or sit for the National Anthem is relevant to the incident that took place at the hockey arena. It isn't. 
  • With the story, the Journal suggests to the public -- even if inadvertently -- that there could be some measure of logical explanation for the deplorable actions that included shouting racial slurs at children if any person in their group from the American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Reservation chose not to stand. There isn't.
  • The headline is based on allegations by an anonymous source that have been called into question. Others interviewed for the story dispute the man's claims, meaning the paper's own reporting indicates the information from the source does not amount to more than hearsay. NAJA is unconvinced that the Journal had good reason to withhold the man's name or, if he would only speak on condition of anonymity, print what he said in the first place. The source was part of the same group as the alleged offender or offenders, and because of his bias, it remains unclear why the paper allowed him to bypass being held publicly accountable for his comments. 
  • The headline and sourcing fell short of standards within Lee Enterprises. Other Lee newspapers, like the Lincoln Journal Star, insist that information from an anonymous source only be included if it is "crucial" to the report. You also are vouching for "the veracity of what's said" when granting anonymity to someone. Based on these criteria for anonymous sourcing, the Journal report was deeply flawed.

NAJA appreciates the Journal editor's prompt response to our concerns.