Northern Arizona University

Media Justice: Cultivating a Citizen-Based News Ecosystem for Underserved and Indigenous Communities

Northern Arizona University is one of the 2018 winners of the Challenge Fund. See all the winners.


  • Jiun-Yi Tsai, Assistant Professor Strategic Communication, Northern Arizona University
  • Rachel C. Tso, Lecturer Journalism and Communication, Northern Arizona University
  • Paul Helford, Principal Lecturer Creative Media & Film, Northern Arizona University
  • Brian Rackham, Assistant Professor of Practice, Director of NAU Media Innovation Center, Journalism, Northern Arizona University
  • Loris A. Taylor, President/CEO, Native Public Media
  • Tonantzin “Toni” DeAztlan Smith, Clinical Assistant Professor, Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University

Describe your project

Northern Arizona is a news desert especially in rural indigenous communities, where news providers have long faced economic and logistical challenges. We are inspired by the Media Justice movement which empowers underrepresented communities to tell their stories and have agency over media representation. We will develop an innovative news ecosystem to produce live stories that have been largely ignored in the Southwest. We will test the efficacy and impacts of using handheld mobile devices and social media outlets to strengthen a community-driven news ecosystem centered around mentor relationships among NAU students, local media professionals, and Northern Arizona indigenous citizens.

What is your experiment?

The three-stage experiment will examine the transformative process of university-community collaboration and the virality of people-empowered stories serving underserved communities. Starting December 2018, the first stage will feature a professional training workshop at NAU that has two distinct purposes. The first is to provide basic smartphone newsgathering, journalism, and media literacy training. The second purpose involves team-building as each group of professionals, indigenous citizens, and students work together on content-creation exercises. This will set the stage for ongoing relationships throughout the experiment.

The second stage will take place between January and July 2019. The teams will work collaboratively to produce and distribute news content in real time on Facebook and Snapchat. During live news events (e.g., sports or public emergencies), citizens on the ground can send dispatches to their counterparts in the newsroom, or directly on social media. The content created will be used in the established outlets’ stories and credited to the citizen journalists and our project. Additionally, NAU communication students will aggregate the stories on digital platforms, providing content for the daily TV news broadcast, NAZ Today, and for Native media outlets serving Tribal communities. We envision a continuation of training and capacity-building among participants during monthly site visits.

The last stage of the experiment will evaluate outcomes through focus groups, semistructured interviews, and social media analytics. The experiment will culminate in August 2019 with a public presentation event to showcase the work.

2019 update: We scheduled two site visits to media outlets for team collaboration and story planning during Spring 2019. We completed one visit to the Navajo Nation in February and another field trip to the Tohono O’odham Nation in March. With a cohesive team, we were able to achieve major milestones, including completing a four-day training workshop as scheduled, producing and sharing news stories focusing on indigenous voices, and establishing collaboration with media partners.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

Our citizen-based news ecosystem will build a participatory newsroom for and by indigenous communities. Rural communities and reservations in Northern Arizona will have a new outlet for the underreported stories they care about. Additionally, the newsrooms in rural areas will have access to on-the-ground reporting and original content to better inform the public. It can also be a way to report on stories that perhaps are not in the interest of national and regional media, but are important to the local communities such as local high school sports, road conditions, impacts of uranium mining, and community events. Media professionals receiving trainings on digital storytelling tools will bolster their newsrooms and expand the accessibility in established Native media. By establishing mentoring relationship between professionals, college students, and citizen journalists we will nurture a diverse cohort of local news leaders who will bridge digital divides and build community.

2019 update:Dr. Tsai presented the project and citizen news at the 2019 Native Broadcast Summit sponsored by Native Public Media. The annual Native broadcast Summit was held in April 2019, and convened the largest gathering of Tribal broadcasters and media makers serving Indian Country. Based on an audience survey, majority conference participants thought that the presentation covered a lot of ground and went into detail about how indigenous reporters can support community journalists.

How is this project unique and innovative?

To the best of our knowledge, we are the first team to experiment a model of handheld device citizen news reporting serving underrepresented rural communities. Working with established media partners lends credibility to our project among indigenous communities to overcome the lack of trust issues. Drawing from the media justice environment, we will revitalize the news desert ecosystem by bridging the coverage gap in the expanse between the Grand Canyon and the Four Corners area, most of it tribal land. News coverage challenges for Indian Country include accessibility, affordability (subscriptions to news services, cost of running newsrooms by local native-licensed broadcast facilities), and agency of shaping their own narratives. The radio stations and newspapers serving tribal communities do not have the resources to cover live news events. We offer a sustainable solution to advocate social justice, empower indigenous citizens, and provide underreported stories that communities care about. Project results are evaluated using rigorous empirical methods.

The location of NAU makes our project unique. We are surrounded by eight Native American reservations and have the proximity to provide journalism training, to create news outlet partnerships, and to build a citizen-based news ecosystem. Lastly, the project involves diverse team members and consultants: Co-PI Tso speaks Navajo language, and has worked as a media educator and consultant within the Northern Arizona indigenous communities for 25 years. Consultant DeAztlan Smith has an indigenous background (Coahuiltecan/Mexico) and has worked as an educator and facilitator for Native American media production for over 10 years.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

This project will inspire changes in media practices and our journalism curriculum, including:

  • Breaking down the knowledge and cultural barriers between NAU and surrounding indigenous communities;
  • Fulfilling the university’s mission of serving the indigenous communities by establishing a sustainable collaboration with Native Public Media Organizations;
  • Expanding the media partners’ newsroom reach to a wide audience through delivering news on digital platforms accessible to Native Americans and local audiences;
  • Enhancing local news journalists’ visual storytelling capabilities;
  • Transforming journalism curriculum to meet critical information needs of indigenous communities through experiential learning and active exploration of media justice (the success of this project will be presented as a case study in a variety of courses at NAU);
  • Empowering Native Americans to report their own stories that will benefit the communities; and
  • Cultivating a new cohort of citizen journalists.

2019 update: Our community reporters produced two videos to show how Native communities have been impacted by the US-Mexico border wall proposal and remained resilient.

One reporter premiered her long piece, “Medicine & Obligation,” at Arizona Women’s Film Festival in Flagstaff this October. This film highlights the perspectives of four Indigenous students attending Northern Arizona University. The film covers the importance of cultural awareness, and the sanctity of self that is tied to one’s ancestral home. Each student has their own reasons for going back to their reservation. Those reasons being obligations to family and their environment, as well as for self-sustenance in an atmosphere that is often voided of Indigenous insight.