Editor of Indian Country Today talks about empowering Indigenous voices in Newhouse lecture series

Indian Country Today Editor talks Indigenous representation in the media

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye spoke about the need to respectfully cover Indigenous communities and amplify Indigenous stories
Published: February 4, 2022
Bennett-Begaye and Chessher on Zoom call
Interim Dean Melissa Chessher, left, and Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, right, discuss Indigenous voices in digital media.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, the editor of the Indian Country Today and a Newhouse alumna, discussed covering Indigenous communities and industry knowledge during a heavy snowstorm on Thursday night as part of Newhouse’s Leaders in Communications series.

Bennett-Begaye completed her graduate fellowship in 2016, during which she worked at Syracuse.com and covered groundbreaking events like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protests. She spoke with Melissa Chessher, Newhouse’s Interim Associate Dean of Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, & Accessibility, about combining activism and journalism.

“We [as journalists] are public servants,” Bennett-Begaye said. “We work to serve the community in ways that uplift them, not exploit them.”

During her time at SU, Bennett-Begaye paid multiple visits to the Onondaga Reservation while covering public health and Indigenous rights. She says it took time for her to make connections with people as an outsider, starting by just talking to and visiting members on the reservation.

Her experience at Indian Country Today provided key opportunities to give back to the Indigenous communities she worked with during her time as a reporter. Her latest project involved tracking COVID-19 data within Indigenous communities to more accurately report death and infection rates. The project, produced by the Indigenous Investigative Coalition, is one of the many pandemic-related initiatives Bennett-Begaye is exploring through Indian Country Today’s platform. Another involves successful vaccination efforts within reservations across the United States.

“Protecting each other is, at our core, what we are all about,” she said. “We knew how to reach our elders, our ranger stations. People knew where to go because they stayed connected.”

She says investigative efforts like these make a difference in overcoming systemic and historical barriers. Bennett-Begaye went on to discuss ways non-native journalists can better cover Indigenous groups and issues. She emphasized the importance of dismantling stereotypes, calling upon media professionals within the audience to do their research on different nations’ histories and cultures.

“There is definitely still some mistrust out there, so it’s important that journalists commit to showing up regularly to build those connections,” Bennett-Begaye said.

Bennett-Begaye also provided advice for young journalists looking to start their careers. Prior to her work at Indian Country Today, Bennett-Begaye taught journalism and video production in her home state of New Mexico.

“Don’t be afraid to bother your editor,” she said. “When someone follows up with me often, I know they’re interested, and I’m more likely to send work their way.” She also recommended that students make their pitches stand out as much as possible, ensuring that they present a newsworthy idea that does not simply rehash repeated topics.

As the Indian Country Today’s first female editor, Bennett-Begaye said she looks out for Indigenous women in her newsroom and is dedicated to creating a more supportive workplace culture overall. She said part of that work, within both journalism and activism, includes prioritizing the mental and physical health of her staff.

“One thing the pandemic has taught us is that this new generation of leaders are finding new, unconventional ways that help us change for the better,” she said.