A year ago this week, students at Red Lake Senior High School on the Ojibwa Reservation in Northern Minnesota returned to school after the most deadly school shooting since Columbine. No community can ever be prepared for a tragedy like that. But in Red Lake, the inevitable media frenzy consisted in large part of reporters who knew nothing of Ojibwa culture, and the tribe, whose Constitution says nothing about press freedom, declared much of the Reservation off limits to reporters. Louise Mengelkoch, a journalism professor at nearby Bemidji State University lays out for Bob the anatomy of a coverage breakdown.
BOB GARFIELD: A year ago this week, students at Red Lake Senior High School in Northern Minnesota returned to school after the most deadly school shooting since Columbine. On March 21st of 2005, Jeffrey Weise, a 16-year-old Ojibwa Chippewa who lived on the Red Lake Reservation, had shot his grandfather and his grandfather's wife before killing seven others at his school, and, finally, himself. No community can ever be prepared for a tragedy like that, but in Red Lake, the ensuing days were especially tough. The inevitable media frenzy pitted reporters, who knew little of Ojibwa culture, against a tribe whose constitution says nothing about press freedom. Louise Mengelkoch, a journalist and professor at nearby Bemidji State University, wrote about the communication breakdown for the current Columbia Journalism Review. She says the local media first on the scene were getting by okay. Then the national reporters showed up.
LOUISE MENGELKOCH: You know, every hotel room filled in the area and journalists driving all over, stopping people in the streets and asking them what they knew and if they would talk. There were reports of journalists offering children candy or [LAUGHS] even cigarettes in exchange for yearbooks. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and sneaking into the hospital to interview people there.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, you note that some of the reaction in the community, especially in Red Lake, in the tribe itself, was quite extreme.
LOUISE MENGELKOCH: Well, yes. You know, that issue of tribal sovereignty is very real for the tribal government in Red Lake, and they used it. You know, to my mind, they definitely went over the edge. And they herded the reporters into a penned-in area and tried to ban reporters from the reservation, then told them they couldn't go off the road, and the media didn't like it at all, needless to say.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, among the differences between Red Lake and the whole of Minnesota that surrounds it is that once you are on the reservation, you do not have free speech rights. You do not have freedom of the press. I was frankly stunned when I realized that. How can that be that on the reservation you don't even have basic First Amendment protection?
LOUISE MENGELKOCH: You know, I'm certainly not an expert on this, but it's my understanding that there was a push to sort of invent American-style governments, you know, on reservations. But things were not done very carefully or there wasn't enough oversight, and so some of these things were just forgotten, free speech being one of them. I mean, it's my feeling that the idea of free speech is not really an instinctive one. I think, in fact, our instincts are to go the other way, and that if most of us had our choice, it would be, you know, free speech for me but not for thee. And so it's easy to go along for many years and not have that idea be challenged.
BOB GARFIELD: Did this incident a year ago make anybody there rethink the wisdom in the year 2006 of having not only a closed reservation but, you know, a substantially closed society?
LOUISE MENGELKOCH: Unfortunately, because of the behavior of the media, it's made them feel more justified in keeping the society closed because they can say look what those people did and how they behaved. You know, they were trying to find out, for example, what Jeff Weise had eaten that morning and kinds of trivial information that I don't think is worth, you know, losing the good will of people for. And that's too bad, because I think it was a real opportunity for the news media to make some inroads, you know, to not just be upset because they were penned-up in an area but to think about the fact that the people who live there every day don't have the right to have free speech.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you believe, a year later, that there is a story yet untold at Red Lake that the media should be interested in, beyond what Jeff ate for breakfast on the day of the shootings?
LOUISE MENGELKOCH: [LAUGHS] Yes. Definitely. And that story probably is how can a reservation like Red Lake that is so proud of its heritage be both open to the world and keep its distinct identity at the same time. Now, that seems to be something worth writing about. This is a place that really has some challenges, and they don't just have to do with poverty and isolation.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Louise, thank you very much.
LOUISE MENGELKOCH: Well, you're quite welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalism professor Louise Mengelkoch is the author of "Blind in Red Lake" in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.
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