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  • Revolutionary Truths: Challenging Mass Media as Minority Reporters

    Producer: Michelle Mehrtens
    Camera: Helen Lehrer, Michelle Mehrtens

    “I used to get sent home on Columbus Day because I pissed off the teachers, I guess,” Simon Moya-Smith laughed. “I wouldn’t eat the Niña, Pinta, Santa María cupcakes, and my mom loved that. She raised me to talk back.”

    Moya-Smith is the culture editor at Indian Country Today and a contributing columnist at CNN, and at the 2017 On the Move program, he was part of a panel called“Media Matters: Ethics and Representation.” Led by radio journalist Kojo Nnamdi, participants discussed the disparities between mainstream news and alternative media. As minority writers, they navigated the dynamics of privilege and discrimination in journalism—and dissected their own experiences when writing for marginalized communities.

    Sebi Medina-Tayac, a grassroots community organizer and journalist, highlighted the ways in which the versatile nature of his identity affected his writing.

    “I’ve become very used to shapeshifting and codeswitching throughout my life,” he said.

    The nephew of current Piscataway chief William Redwing Tayac, Medina-Tayac translated his uncle’s sermons into Spanish as a young boy. While writing for the New Haven Independent, he readily mediated separate cultural spheres, like when he interviewed undocumented migrants from San Francisco Tetlanohcan, a municipality in Mexico.

    “It’s just presenting different sides of yourself,” he explained, noting that his ability to act as a “chameleon” has allowed him to access overlooked spaces. Rather than ignore the silences that prejudice yields, he seeks to explain it.

    Media Matters panel
    Simon Moya-Smith, Sharon Shahid, Sebi Medina-Tayac, and Kojo Nnamdi at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Yet, for many journalists who do not identify as white, a crucial conversation arises: how to carve out an identity in newsrooms without being relegated to the “other.” While writing for “predominately white media,” Medina-Tayac frequently experienced tokenization as a Colombian American member of the Piscataway Nation.  

    “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to go talk to the brown people for us, so they can’t accuse us of not representing those narratives.’ And I become a shield, in a way, for this large institution.”

    The panelists emphasized the necessity of claiming their own platforms and generating media for themselves. Alternative publications, including Indian Country Today, Telesur, and Akwesasne Notes, offer distinct perspectives that subvert misconceptions about racial and ethnic groups, specifically Native and Latin American communities. Moreover, these works help dismantle the insular networks of mainstream journalism.

    “People of color have come together and, instead of trying to fit into this white paradigm of objectivity and equal representation, [they] focused on truth-telling,” Medina-Tayac said.

    Traditional journalism, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, follow specific stylebooks when crafting stories. According to Moya-Smith, their vocabulary has been shaped by a limited lens that perpetuates an exclusive version of the American narrative. When he writes for Indian Country Today, he explicitly refers to pilgrims as “undocumented farm workers.” This phrase splinters the obscure social language that serves to sanitize the actions of early explorers. As he underscored, whole populations existed in the “New World” far before these “undocumented farm workers” arrived and claimed the land.

    “I think it is incumbent upon the conscientious objector, and especially the writer of color, the ethnic minority, to push back against the American narrative,” Moya-Smith stated.

    Sebi Medina-Tayac
    Sebi Medina-Tayac at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    While reporting for the New Haven Independent, Medina-Tayac grappled with the question of bias in his own work. He wanted to write a story about a Native issue that related to his personal experiences.

    “I talked to my editor, and I said, ‘Well, I’m worried about writing the story because everything I’ve learned in my journalism classes is that I’m not objective. I’m not an objective reporter.’ And he looked at me and laughed. He said, ‘Objective? Who’s objective?’ He said, ‘Tell the truth.’”

    Throughout the panel, the participants debated the meanings of objectivity and accuracy. As they noted, works published by the mainstream media maintain the illusion of neutrality. Yet, this “neutrality” is its own form of subjectivity; it is a standard predicated on the experiences and assumptions of a dominant majority, specifically white journalists.

    “We have to look at what we agree as being objective,” Moya-Smith said.

    Highly personal readings have always existed—they were simply deemed “neutral” by those who considered their white experiences universal. Communities that white journalists could not implicitly relate to, nor grasp their cultural cues and colloquialisms, were labeled “other.”

    Sharon Shahid, an African American founding member of USA Today’s editorial staff, referenced the media coverage surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. In regards to police corruption and brutality, “black people have been talking about that for years,” she said. Her mother, who lives near Ferguson, often shared stories about police pulling over civilians. When television crews swept the town after Brown’s death, most publications framed police brutality as a new phenomenon—rather than a systemic problem ingrained in the social infrastructure.  

    Sharon Shahid
    Sharon Shahid at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “The black press did a much better job than that,” Shahid said. “They were in it from the beginning, and they didn’t just leave when the cameras packed up and left. They were still talking about those issues.”

    In 2014, the Huffington Post collected headlines from multiple news outlets to compare descriptions of white suspects and black victims. Following the shooting and death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, NBC News published an article titled “Trayvon Martin was suspended three times from school.” After a mass shooting perpetrated by a white man in 2014, the Whittier Daily News wrote, “Santa Barbara shooting: Suspect was ‘soft-spoken, polite, a gentleman,’ ex-principal says.” Language does not exist in a social vacuum, but instead retains historical weight and power. These headlines reify racist tropes that position marginalized figures as aggressors, regardless of context.

    As an Oglala Lakota and Chicano journalist, Moya-Smith critiqued the varied manifestations of racism that many Native groups experience. He repeatedly mentioned the prevalence of police brutality against indigenous communities, which rarely receives proper reporting.

    According to a 2014 study released by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police, per capita, than any other demographic in the United States. A 2000 survey backed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated, “Many Native Americans in South Dakota…believe that the administration of justice at the Federal and State levels is permeated by racism.” In 2015, Al Jazeera reported that four officers used a stun gun on an eight-year-old member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. The Washington Post published a story about Renee Davis, a pregnant mother of three, who was shot and killed in her home during a wellness check in 2016. There are many stories like this, but they rarely gain national attention.

    Simon Moya-Smith
    Simon Moya-Smith at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “People don’t want to know that Native Americans are the smallest racial minority in their ancestral homeland,” Moya-Smith said. “People don’t want to know that Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted. These things fly in the face of the American narrative because it’s comfortable to have Thanksgiving and not know how bloody that was.”

    As the panelists explained, denying an uneasy reality through the media creates a distorted view of the world.

    “I walk through the door, and I don’t have braids or I’m not in moccasins or feathers, people are like, ‘What the hell is he?’” Moya-Smith shifted in his seat and gestured to himself. “Look, I have short hair, right? I’m wearing glasses, I have a phone—” He reached for his Starbucks cup and shook it, “—I have a latte.”

    With a sigh, he explained that most people are unaware that there are 566 federally recognized tribes, precluding state-recognized tribes, First Nation groups from Canada, and indigenous communities in Mexico and farther south. There is no one way to be Native American. As Moya-Smith shared, his Oglala Lakota heritage does not automatically grant him access to the experiences of the Diné people. They possess distinct languages, spiritualties, and histories.

    “I think we need to expand our minds and think of the indigenous peoples as complex—and not just see us as a football mascot logo,” he urged.

    Too often, mainstream media reduces marginalized groups to concepts as opposed to real, multifaceted people. Rather than acknowledge and explore the intricacies of their humanity, these journalists often fall back on easy stereotypes and placid descriptions of personhood; they reduce whole communities to a single, amorphous faction. The inability to differentiate figures in a nuanced manner, the dependence on common tropes and prejudices of racial minorities, proves dangerous. These problematic renderings too often become part of “history,” of the nebulous, unknowable past, because readers accept them at face value. It is necessary to establish a comprehensive narrative grounded in the works of minority journalists—instead of speaking for or over them.

    As Medina-Tayac stated, “The truth itself is revolutionary.”

    Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

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