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Native American journalists promote newsroom diversity at convention

LAS VEGAS — Native Americans from across the country met in Las Vegas from Aug. 1-4 to partake in the UNITY 2012 Convention, a national gathering of minority journalists that promotes diversity in newsrooms.

Members of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association joined together at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino for networking, training seminars and in-depth panel discussions on minority issues in the media.

“One of the goals of UNITY is to increase and broaden news coverage focusing on people of color and to dispel racial and ethnic stereotypes and myths,” said NAJA president Rhonda LeValdo, of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, in her address to conference attendees. “This goal has not changed and will not change; the mission is still the same: to make sure the industry reflects the nation’s diversity.”

According to its website, NAJA “educates and unifies its membership through journalism programs that promote diversity and defends challenges to free press, speech and expression.” Since its inception in 1984, NAJA has committed itself to increase the representation of Native journalists in mainstream media.

The organization has approximately 300 members, with many attending the UNITY 2012 Convention, said NAJA executive director and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Tribal member Jeff Harjo, who recently resigned his post to run for his Tribal government.

During the opening plenary on Aug. 1, a four-person panel moderated by Mark Whitaker, executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide, discussed ways journalists cover race, ethnicity, culture and gender in the media. Native American Marley Shebala, a senior reporter for The Navajo Times, sat on the panel.

Shebala said she began reporting when she noticed her college paper didn’t cover Native American issues on her campus, which she deemed unacceptable. Although she was studying nursing, she found herself immersed in journalism.

“I was meant to be a writer; I was meant to be in journalism,” she said. “I was meant to give a voice to our people.”

Throughout her career, Shebala has covered dozens of Native American issues, and her reporting even led to the ousting of two Navajo leaders for the misuse of Tribal funds. She believes all journalists should report the news without bias, she said.

“We especially, as journalists, should be the ones who are unbiased,” Shebala said. “We have to continually be vigilant in looking at that term.”

The UNITY Journalists organization holds the UNITY Convention every four years. This year marked the first year the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association participated, while the National Association of Black Journalists recently resigned.

The convention also addressed newsroom downsizing: Total newsroom employment at daily newspapers declined by 2.4 percent in 2011, while the loss in minority newsroom positions was 5.7 percent, according to a census released by the American Society of News Editors and the Center for Advanced Social Research at the Missouri School of Journalism. In addition, the convention offered exhibitor booths for participants to network and to search for jobs.

With a theme of “Engage, Connect, Embrace,” UNITY offered seminars throughout the four-day convention to address those very topics and to teach technical skills. Seminars geared toward Native American coverage included The Question of Native American Indian Identity and educated reporters on the question of “who’s Native American and who isn’t and why it’s important.” Panelists used the example of Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren claiming Native American heritage.

Next year, NAJA will hold its own annual conference in Phoenix.

The Seminole Tribune, a member of the Native American Journalists Association, attended the UNITY 2012 Convention representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

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