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Journalists say context is key when covering health challenges in Native American communities

June 12th, 2018

Story Contact: Cailin Riley, 573-882-4870,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that journalists serving Native American communities could offer a promising channel for communicating health news and solutions. When Native American communities face alarming health statistics, these journalists find that placing the information into appropriate cultural and historical contexts can help. The study also suggests that journalists serving non-Native cultures might provide more accurate representations of American Indian health challenges if they too include a holistic view.

“The journalists we interviewed for this study—who cover these communities regularly—suggested that health choices among Native Americans or Alaska Natives are affected by historical context,” said Rokeshia Renné Ashley, a recent doctoral graduate from the School of Journalism. “For example, if a person develops diabetes because they eat processed food that could be seen as a result of his or her individual choices. However, the behavior might be viewed differently if people understand the history of indigenous foods being replaced by a Western diet. Health journalists serving Native American communities are emphasizing how their audiences face a different health landscape than the majority of the country’s population.”

Ashley and the co-authors interviewed health journalists who currently serve Native American communities and found that the journalists believe barriers to health include inaccessible health care facilities and discrimination in health care delivery. The journalists also described how these groups experience tensions between modern and cultural models of health.

“Many groups, including Native Americans, have a more holistic view of health that includes traditional medicine in addition to mental and emotional well-being,” Ashley said. “If modern medicine and conventional news coverage doesn’t address those aspects, these groups can feel ostracized because traditional cultural health practices are not being considered.”

Ashley said that journalists serving the general public could write more effective health stories if they research the cultural challenges Native Americans face when seeking better health. In particular, the participants in the study wanted to encourage journalists covering Native American stories for non-Native audiences to shift away from blaming individuals and move toward a mindset that addresses wider historical and cultural issues and contexts.

“Failure to recognize how health inequalities originated and developed over time might hurt journalists’ efforts to communicate with various affected communities,” said Amanda Hinnant, co-author and associate professor in the School of Journalism.

“How journalists characterize health inequalities and redefine solutions for Native American audiences,” was published in Health Communication. Co-authors of the study include Roma Subramanian, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha; Mimi Perreault, research assistant professor and lecturer at Appalachian State University; Rachel Young, assistant professor at the University of Iowa; and Ryan J. Thomas, assistant professor at MU’s School of Journalism. Subramanian, Perreault and Young are all MU alumnae.