This year, ProPublica set out to do what many have failed to — work with Indigenous communities to identify problems, investigate them, and ensure that information will be useful.
In the Columbia River Basin, journalists tested salmon for toxins, collecting data about human health risks that regulators hadn’t. While reporting on how institutions hold hundreds of thousands of Native American human remains and cultural items, we identified the need to pull together difficult to access public information.
We knew both efforts had to be community-driven. Tribal leaders told us there was the potential for harm depending on our approach, and that reporters historically produced journalism that perpetuated damaging narratives. We also wanted to ensure our work was helpful to the communities we sought to serve.
To do that, we designed a “No Surprises” effort for the community. We sought editorial buy-in from the outset, gut checked throughout and, for the first time, formally presented findings and made changes based on what we heard, even if it meant pushing back publication. When the work went live, we reached out to tribal citizens who could use the information, including through events and partnerships.
For this entry, we focus on two stories of major institutional failures. ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting teamed up to quantify the consequences of the U.S. government failing to uphold treaty rights through the lens of salmon, a pillar of tribal culture. Through engagement with tribal leaders, we learned how harmful and inaccurate a story depicting tribal members as passive victims would be. Many people told us they needed receipts and new information to push the conversation forward. So, we came up with the idea to test fish directly off local vendors’ counters. The results were shocking, but not surprising, to tribal members: there were levels of chemicals that have been found to cause adverse health outcomes, and state and federal agencies were not equipped to meaningfully respond to findings their own staff called alarming. The reporters focused on the significance of salmon rather than a warning to avoid it.
ProPublica also reported on museums, universities and agencies holding several hundred thousand Native American human remains and funerary objects – despite a 1990 law requiring their “expeditious” return to tribes. To start our engagement efforts, we introduced ourselves in a message to every tribal historic preservation officer and tribal leader listed in national and federal directories, as well as organizations focused on repatriation. We answered questions, which became the basis of a later FAQ post, and joined meetings of people working on repatriation. Recognizing that repatriation data can be seen as sensitive, even if it is public, we showed tribal representatives early versions of an interactive using the data. We made meaningful adjustments to alleviate concerns and to ensure the tool was actively useful.
Judges felt this was a challenging and important story to do well, and a truly monumental effort to do it in a ‘no surprises’ respectful way that takes advantage of their format and builds on previous engagement work.