VIEWPOINT: Print news stories favor nickname

GRAND FORKS -- In a recent letter, Charles Scudder of Denver accuses the Herald of harboring an anti-nickname bias ("Selection of quotes shows paper's bias," Page D3, May 22).

GRAND FORKS -- In a recent letter, Charles Scudder of Denver accuses the Herald of harboring an anti-nickname bias ("Selection of quotes shows paper's bias," Page D3, May 22).

He notes how a May 14 Herald story quoted zero "pro-nickname" sources while giving space to two neutral and three anti-logo voices

Scudder ended by asking "Why should we not conclude that the Herald is actively involved in a propaganda campaign to manipulate the reader with one-sided quotes?"

As a fellow media critic, I was encouraged to see Scudder's letter, which raises important questions about how stories are reported and who is sought for opinion and commentary on issues by journalists.

The problem with Scudder's conclusion, which appears to originate from a pro-logo position, is that the exact inverse is true.


Having recently conducted a more formal study of the same sort for a national newsmagazine, I explored reporting on the "Fighting Sioux" and "Chief Illiniwek" (Illinois) controversies around the time of their respective retirements. As Herald readers know, immediately following these retirements, advocates of both Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Sioux nickname cried foul, accusing university officials of subverting democracy and failing to hear the voices of the silent majority, including American Indians, who support such nicknames and mascots.

But is this charge fair? The numbers suggest not.

With regard to UND, I collected print news stories from the national, local and college press that cite "Fighting Sioux" and "nickname" from May 2009 to April 2010. A search of several news databases, including LexisNexis and the ProQuest academic database (among others), turned up 242 original print news stories addressing the Fighting Sioux dispute, citing 678 total sources.

In each case, I designated sources sought by reporters for comment as "pro," "anti," or "neutral" with regard to their opinion of the universities' nickname. (Neutral voices were typically university administrators who hesitated to express an opinion or voices merely commenting on retirement processes, not the retirement.)

Excluding editorials and wire service "briefs" (less than 100 words) but including sports page stories addressing the issue, this report found that not only did nickname proponents get double the space in the local and national press in both cases, contrary to Scudder's claim, but that American Indian voices -- the demographic to which the NCAA had given ultimate say -- accounted for less than one-fifth of all sources cited.

More specifically, in major stories addressing the "Sioux" issue, 84 percent of sources expressed either a pro- or neutral position on the nickname. A mere 16 percent were explicitly opposed to the nickname/logo.

With regard to ethnicity, only 30 percent of all "Sioux" story sources were identified as American Indians, with opinion among these sources being split: a majority of 47 percent of Native voices opposed the nickname while 43 percent approved. Of non-Indian sources cited (70 percent of the total), more than 96 percent endorsed the nickname or remained ambivalent.

In other words, not only are nickname advocates not silenced, but print media overwhelmingly have sought non-Indians for comment, despite the marginal role their opinion is supposed to play according to the NCAA resolution repealing schools' championship privileges for retaining such names.


(It should be noted that regional reporters significantly outperformed Illinois reporters at including Indian voices. Herald staff writer Chuck Haga's reporting has been commendable in this regard. In "Illiniwek" stories, a mere 9 percent of sources were identified as American Indians, the vast majority of these opposing the mascot.)

One consequence of this imbalance is that little space remains in stories for reporters to introduce more nuanced arguments and external evidence that such nicknames and mascots marginalize modern American Indians as an autonomous cultural entity.

So, in neither sample set did journalists explore in detail the fact that the use of Indian symbols is opposed by, among other governmental, cultural and academic institutions, the NAACP, the American Psychological Association, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for the emotional and civic damage it causes American Indians, particularly children.

Because the majority does not automatically understand minority perspectives on this issue, reporters should explore them more robustly. And in seeking out predominantly authoritative (and non-Indian) neutral or pro-logo voices, the media often misses a chance to help readers understand the anti-nickname position, to the detriment of American Indian dignity and self-determination.

Schill is undergraduate research coordinator for the UND Honors Program.

What To Read Next
Get Local