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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Indigenous perspective and Earth ethics in journalism: A Q&A with Professor Patty Loew

Nadia Tijan is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Patty Loew, a journalist and citizen of Mashkiiziibii, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, has spent her career reshaping the face of Native American reporting. Her work highlights Indigenous communities in both tribal and mainstream media and amplifies Native American voices in environmental journalism. Since 2006, Loew has led the Tribal Youth Media initiative, a digital media project that seeks to help create the next generation of Native American storytellers and land stewards.

Headshot Patty Loew

She is currently a professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the recently retired inaugural director of Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. She is also the author of four books: “Native People of Wisconsin”; “Teachers Guide to Native People of Wisconsin”; “Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal”; and “Seventh Generation Earth Ethics,”  a collection of biographies of Native American environmental leaders.

We spoke with Loew about her work with Native American youth and digital storytelling and the ethics of Indigenous environmental reporting. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

How did you first become an environmental journalist?

I became really inspired especially when, in my young adulthood, I began trying to learn more about my own identity by visiting my reservation, and so things were starting to gel. It just kind of fed this desire in me to learn more about the environment and look at alternatives to the way it was business as usual. It stuck with me and became a real passion. When I went back to graduate school and collected my Master’s and Ph.D., my focus was on history and Native American history, particularly treaty rights and sovereignty. The environment intersects with those concepts again, and again and again. The more I looked at history, the more it intersected with environmental topics, and it became the area that I really felt I was most interested in as a researcher, as a professional journalist, as an outreach specialist, and as an educator.

What inspired your project Tribal Youth Meda?

When I was working at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, one of my colleagues, Dan Stanley, who is an Oneida descendant, and I got to talking about how to get youth involved in environmental efforts and to get a sense of connection to their communities. We thought of their natural landscapes because so much of what’s happened in Native history has really been all about separating Native people from the land. We thought ‘What if we did a camp that got kids connected to the environment?’ Research has shown when you put a microphone in front of a kid it’s really an empowering experience. And in our community, we’re all about storytelling, storytellers are really revered. So we also thought, let’s give kids a chance to be storytellers and see what happens. 

We wanted to do it the right way, so we met with elders and community leaders at the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation because there was a tribal college there that had the kind of resources we needed. We started there and it was pretty successful. The kids created amazing stories. We incorporated traditional ecological knowledge and involved the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which has scientists on 11 Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. We included the elders and we tried to explain to kids that there’s a way to privilege traditional ecological knowledge, the way scientific knowledge is privileged. We put the two ways of knowing together in a unique, wonderful way to try to grow the next generation of storytellers and land stewards.

The project that we’re doing now is an NSF grant. It has many layers, one of which is a giant screen film on climate change, looking at the effects on Indigenous communities and the positive, empowering steps that communities are taking to solve some climate change issues. I work with teenagers in four tribal communities throughout the country, helping young people produce climate change videos. They have Gimbels (handheld stabilizing units), audio equipment, tripods, backpacks, and Chromebooks, and they get to keep everything along with the $500 Scholarship. Their community gets $1,000 to create a community screening. The kids will screen their films at science museums, and when the big film airs their short films will air with it. They’ll do question-and-answer sessions and I just love everything about it.

What is “traditional ecological knowledge” or Indigenous ways of knowing and why is it important to environmental journalism?

When people live in a landscape for tens of thousands of years they understand its rhythms. They make observations that can be useful. There are concepts that you see in Indigenous communities, some of which align with concepts in journalism. For example, you tend to see these kind of horizontal power structures in Native communities. It’s a community-based power structure where power is shared and there’s consensus building. So that’s not unlike journalism where you’re getting multiple perspectives and trying to get a lot of people weighing in on something. Those concepts are simpatico. As we get more global, we understand that we need to be open to multiple perspectives and ways of knowing. I think what’s happening now is not working. We’re using up the resources that we have. We’re abusing our plant and animal relatives and we’re marching toward self-destruction. In order to survive, we need to reach out and look at the way other communities are doing things, which includes incorporating Indigenous communities.

What are the greatest pitfalls of environmental and Indigenous coverage in journalism?

I think the main complaint that I have about mainstream news coverage is its real emphasis on poverty porn. You know, ‘What’s wrong with Indian Country?’ We’re portrayed as victims or that our communities have no agency or power and that’s certainly not true. There’s a real emphasis on generational trauma, which is absolutely a thing. But we didn’t survive because of generational trauma. We survived because of generational joy, innovation and ingenuity. And I don’t see those kinds of stories in mainstream coverage about us. No community wants to be defined by its deficiencies.

The other problem I see, especially in electronic coverage, is that reporters are always ‘splainin’ when they’re doing a story in Indian country. There’s all this narration and we’ve had non-Native people speaking for us for a very, very long time. So just shut up and let us tell our own story. That sounds a little harsh, but let us explain things in our own way. And when you’re doing stories, use our frames. Climate change isn’t just about the economic effects on our communities. It’s about our relationship with the natural world and the way people coexist with animals and plants and the earth and water.

How can journalists get Indigenous reporting “right”?

The best thing to do is to show up when there’s no crisis. Show up at the powwow, talk to people, introduce yourself, but follow up and visit the community when there’s not a crisis. Humble yourself. Acknowledge that you don’t know what you don’t know and that you’re interested in learning. Ask them, ‘What are the underreported or misreported stories in the community? What are some of the empowering stories that show not just survival but ingenuity and imagination and stories that you’d like to see out there about your community?’ When you talk about some of the problems ask, ‘How would you frame them?’ 

There are traumatic stories and Native folks were victims. For example, absolutely tell the story of Indian boarding schools. But there’s another side to it. What does education look like when Native people are in charge of their own learning? What are the knowledge systems that have persisted? How have Native people taken a hold of history and used it to educate themselves? There are all kinds of empowering tangents that you could take off from a main story. But you can’t do that unless you create relationships within the community and learn what those tangents are. 

We talk about the four R’s. Relationship, respect, responsibility and reciprocity. If you have those four qualities in anything you do in Indigenous communities, whether it’s teaching, research, or outreach, it’ll be successful. So you start with relationship building. Once you have those relationships, you show respect by learning the protocols of that community and you understand that there’s some knowledge that isn’t shared outside the community. Some of it is sacred knowledge. 

Reciprocity is the one that’s a little tricky because, as journalists, we don’t want to pay for anything. It sets a bad precedent. But there are ways to be reciprocal without having an exchange of money. Maybe you go into a community and see if there’s a young person who is interested in storytelling or interested in journalism and if there’s somebody that has some skills, maybe you go in and offer to coauthor a story. It might be when you will interview an elder. You don’t pay them but maybe you bring them a bag of organic fruit or you offer to chop some wood for them. There are lots of ways that you can be reciprocal and that’s really important in our communities, we are gifters.

What role do journalists play in connecting different communities and audiences through reporting on environmental issues?

If I were a news reporter and I was covering a  part of the country, I’d be looking for common denominators. Everybody needs clean water. Everybody wants to breathe clean air. Everybody wants a better future for their children. Start there and find multiple voices representing different sectors of society. I’m excited about solutions journalism. That was something that, when I was a new journalist starting out, it was all ‘don’t get into advocacy.’ Your job was just to report the facts. But we know that reporting the facts is about the status quo. The status quo is not a neutral space. The status quo is what has been created by people that wield power and influence. I think now we’re starting to realize that that hasn’t gotten us where we need to be. And I think journalists now are seeing that their role can be and maybe should be to produce the kind of change that’s going to propel us forward in a more equitable way and strengthen democracy.

What is the future of environmental reporting and solution journalism?

Along with solutions journalism and trying to talk about change there’s this idea that you can’t be neutral on a moving train. It’s going somewhere, life is going somewhere. It’s going in a direction and you got to either move with it or against it. We can’t just stick in the middle, which is what reporters like to think they do. We’ve seen what trying to stick in the middle gets us, like with the creation of false equivalencies. You can find that 99% of scientists say climate change is real and then you find the 1% wacko that says, no, it’s not. When you put them side by side, it confuses the public. 

We’ve learned our lesson with big tobacco, with fire retardant clothing and with climate change. We can’t claim to be neutral. We can still try to be fair, but we’ve got to own our biases. We’ve got to own the baggage that we bring to everything, to the story we are covering. With solutions journalism, at the same time, we have to figure out how we’re going to survive and shore up our own economic landscape. But we also have to come up with positive solutions for these wicked problems all while remembering that we have a really important role to play in strengthening and preserving democracy.

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