Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP
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Opinion: Media issues on anniversary of Red Lake

"March 21 will mark the one-year anniversary of the Red Lake Reservation high school shootings that left ten people dead, including the gunman, sixteen-year-old Jeff Weise. Bemidji State University, where I teach journalism, is in a small resort town of the same name thirty miles south of the school. Over the years it has been a continual challenge to recruit and retain Red Lakers and Native American students from the two other nearby reservations (White Earth and Leech Lake) for our journalism program. It’s harder still, in the wake of that story.

I happened to be in England with thirty BSU students when we saw the headlines in the London papers. We felt shock, grief, and a strange sense of loss, knowing we’d never be part of the shared memories of our community, horrible though they were. When I returned, I discovered that part of those shared memories was centered on disgust with the news media that descended on Red Lake from around the country and the world.

Eyewitness accounts were not flattering: one reporter sneaked into a closed hospital wing. Others slipped into funerals from which the media were specifically banned. Some offered candy and cigarettes to teenagers in exchange for information, yearbooks, or access of some kind. Most treated the local media with indifference and disrespect. Unfortunately, most local residents I spoke with, both Native American and white, approved of the tribal government’s extreme measures in trying to control the press, which included herding reporters to a penned area in a parking lot, warning that leaving the road constituted trespassing, arresting photographers and confiscating their equipment.

The situation dramatized the excesses of both positions — demand for access and excessive demand for secrecy and control — when pushed to their logical extreme. Those two forces were exacerbated by the horrific nature of the crime, the international media attention, and Red Lake’s closed society. Red Lake residents are justly proud that their land has never been broken up, but their unity and isolation have come at a price. Red Lake’s constitution has no free-speech clause, and it has seldom been challenged.

When the front door is closed on a big story, as one Tribal Council spokesman conceded, the media will head for the back door. Still, the behavior of the outside news media made it even harder for those of us left behind to push for civil liberties on the reservation. It also made it harder for local journalists, who have the unenviable job of providing news to and about a reservation with no free press of its own.

The Bemidji Pioneer’s editor, Molly Miron, studies the Ojibwe language at the university. She studied Lakota when she worked in South Dakota. She arrived at Red Lake High School last year only forty-five minutes after the shooting because one of her sources called her on a cell phone, and took the photo of the three teenage girls hugging each other that showed up on the front page of newspapers around the world. “Media need to educate themselves about the culture of the area,” she says. “It’s not that hard with the Internet. You’d think they’d do their homework.”"

Get the Story:
Louise Mengelkoch: Blind in Red Lake (The Columbia Journalism Review 3/21)

Relevant Links:
Red Lake Net News -
Red Lake Nation -
Red Lake High School -

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