In the words of School of Journalism Associate Professor Jason Begay, the 2020 Native News Honors Project was simply “pure chaos.”
The project went completely virtual in 2020, its 29th year, as a result of the global pandemic that limited travel and shut down businesses. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock called a state of emergency in mid-March, the Friday before Native News students were set to leave for their reporting trips to the state’s tribal reservations.
Most reporting teams were forced to abandon the weeks of pre-reporting they had done through the beginning of the semester. Likewise, the Native News project had to adjust its curriculum in order to protect not only its students but the tribal communities it covers.
The theme for the project originally was going to focus on the intersection of science and traditional tribal culture, an examination of the sciences present in tribal communities both traditional and modern. However, following the outbreak, students faced a decision: to go or not to go?
“We knew we didn’t want to make students feel like they were required to travel during such an uncertain time,” Begay said. “But we also didn’t want them to think we were trivializing their pre-reporting work. It was a conflicted relief when most teams decided on their own not to go.”
Instead, the class met several times during spring break to discuss alternatives and decided to move forward and cover the impacts of COVID-19 on Montana’s reservations, albeit reporting remotely.
“You get this experience that literally most reporters are never going to have, you get to spend a week on an Indian reservation reporting a story,” he said. “It’s a real shame to have lost that component.”
Part of what makes these trips so unique is that many students who take the class have never been to a reservation before. The Native News Honors Project was founded to give journalism students an opportunity to report on communities that are typically left out of mainstream media as well as teaching students how to report on communities they most likely have not visited, Begay said.
The Native News course has become one of the journalism school’s most popular capstone classes distributing their stories throughout all of Montana.
“My goal is for you all to produce the best piece of journalism of your careers so far,” Begay would often tell the class.
Paul Hamby, a senior in the journalism school, joined the project because it was one of the things that drew him to the University of Montana in the first place.
“It seemed like the journalism school’s signature course,” Hamby said. “One of the first things I noticed about the school was its Native News program and it was incredibly unique, I didn’t really see any other journalism school doing anything like it.”
Fortunately for Hamby, much of his pre-reporting was done remotely anyway, as his assigned reservation, Fort Peck, is more than eight hours from Missoula.
For the project, Hamby and his partner covered the return of the bison to the Assiniboine and Sioux of the Fort Peck reservation in northeast Montana. The two were among the few students that chose to continue reporting their original story, opting to go on their trip with extra precautions in place.
Part of what makes Native News special is the publishing of stories to a wide audience, Begay said. Staying true to the mission of the project was important, even during this strange time.
“It was never an option to just ‘call it,’” he said.
However, the project also has an integral photography component that was all but crippled with remote reporting. One of the biggest challenges facing the project was how to create engaging imagery without being able to actually photograph people and scenes in person.
“It was really about asking ourselves: What can we do good and do well?” said Jeremy Lurgio, the Native News co-professor who manages the photography, design and video components.
Both professors had their eyes on potential worst-case scenarios, even before it was clear Montana would essentially shut down. Lurgio said he was already mulling alternatives to photographs and video even before reporting trips were cancelled.
Despite the major change in programming, Lurgio and Begay said they were confident that Native News students would rise to the challenge. Students who could no longer report their original stories came together to co-report and write about COVID-19 and produced stories on four different aspects of coronavirus in Indian Country.
“As a journalist, your responsibility is to write accurate effective stories,” Lurgio said. “Having a pandemic surround you doesn’t change that mission, it just changes how you approach that mission.”
However, canceling the print publication also meant the project’s student designer had to scrap the 48-page design template. Alyssa Stokovich, the project’s designer, instead focused her attention on creating informative graphics for the new stories.
“She has done an amazing job,” Lurgio said.
While the road was rocky, the students’ dedication and hard work in all aspects, paid off, Begay said.
“In terms of the important part of the class, it’s still intact,” Begay said. “We are still covering these areas that are not covered very well, which is our whole mission.”
When the semester is concluded, Native News 2020 will have four pieces looking at the impacts of coronavirus and quarantine on tribal communities throughout the state and three stories dedicated to Native people and their relationship to science.
“I do hope that despite the setbacks, the project still becomes what it always is,” Lurgio said. “Which is six-to-eight great stories that share really good information and stories from subjects in our Native American communities and the things they’re doing well and the challenges they face and maybe point to some solutions along the way.”