By Kasey Brammell
The Southwest Health Reporting Initiative at Cronkite News is addressing food and water security issues and access to tele-health for Native Americans through radio segments and podcasts designed to better reach audiences in those communities.
Students produced four audio stories during the summer showing how the coronavirus pandemic has affected Native American communities and highlighting those who’ve stepped up to help. The health initiative, which is funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is working to create more audio packages throughout the fall semester for both Native American and Spanish-speaking audiences.
Over the summer 2020 semester, graduate students Caitlynn McDaniel and Chance Dorland discovered that podcast and radio stories could, at times, connect with audiences more effectively than online or print news due to greater accessibility within rural Native American communities.
“What the students found is there’s a long tradition of audio and radio in Indian Country, dating back to the early 1970s when the first Native-owned radio station in the U.S. went on-air in Alaska,” said Pauline Arrillaga, professor of practice and director of the Southwest Health Reporting Initiative.
The students emphasize that representation is imperative. Audiences enjoy stories that are told with their own voices and languages.
“Our research showed that audio is a prominent part of communication for many tribes and reservations where resources like electricity and running water are scarce,” McDaniel said. “The audio stories were an appropriate platform to distribute these health stories because either people had battery-operated radios or they had their phones, and we built the audio to be able to be heard on either of these platforms.”
McDaniel and other students took extra care to ensure the stories accurately reflected what’s happening in Indian Country. “It is really important when you are reporting about this community, you speak to the community. And you check all your facts with multiple members of the community,” she said.
Audio stories included:
• A piece about a Navajo man who started driving across the reservation to deliver water to those in need. Published on Indian Country Today, KJZZ, the Phoenix NPR station and in other outlets.
• A story about efforts to deliver traditional seeds to Native Americans to increase food security and sovereignty in light of the pandemic. Featured on Indian Country Today and on KJZZ, among other outlets.
• A story about efforts to further expand telehealth in Native American communities.
• A story about a group of Navajo women who started an effort to get supplies to elders in need during the pandemic.
This project is a point of pride for McDaniel despite roadblocks she encountered, mostly due to COVID-19 restrictions. “I loved learning so much each day and working on my ability to record and edit audio from home that could be distributed on a larger scale,” she said. “It was scary at times because I wanted to do it justice and I cared so much about the goal and the people I spoke with. But in the end, it was worth the hours of reading and sending many, many emails.”
Cronkite News is looking to expand its efforts in audio reporting by producing stories in Spanish to air on Spanish-language radio.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with our efforts so far. We’re doing exactly what we set out to do: helping to tell important, solutions-focused stories about Native Americans working to overcome,” Arrillaga said. “Our ultimate aim with this content is to continue spotlighting vital health issues – but also what’s being done to address some of those challenges.”