Searchlight New Mexico opened its doors nearly three years ago to serve as a third arm to local newsrooms. Besieged by layoffs, many outlets have lost the resources to carry out the investigative reporting that is so essential to democracy. Our mission is to produce that kind of work and share it with news media across the state and beyond. This puts us in constant communication with our fellow journalists, for whom we have the utmost respect. Searchlight would never do anything to undermine their efforts.
So what happened in the past week took us by surprise and also renewed an important and ongoing conversation in our newsroom. I refer here to the response on Twitter following the publication of “Chaos and Cannabis,” our Sept. 23rd story about hemp farms on the Navajo Nation. It was a story long in the making. Staff reporter Ed Williams began digging into it over the summer, after being told about it by his colleague, Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi, a former Navajo Times reporter whose family lives in the Northern Agency. News stories about the conflict had already appeared in the Navajo Times, Farmington Daily Times and Associated Press. Ed made numerous trips to Shiprock, where he talked to tribal police, traditional corn farmers, greenhouse workers and residents. He poured through police records and financial documents, talked to county, state, and federal agencies, sat in on farm board meetings, interviewed a business associate from California, tracked down connections to Hong Kong, and sat down for a conversation with the president of the Navajo Farm Bureau. When he was finished, his sources numbered over 35. The story then went through numerous drafts and was scrutinized (twice) by our lawyer.
The day after the story dropped, another Searchlight reporter, Ike Swetlitz, dashed off a congratulatory tweet – a shout-out urging people to read the story that Ed “broke.” He’d used the wrong word. Of course, Ed didn’t break the story. The article itself never claimed such a thing, although, in truth, it did break new ground, including the fact that some of the so-called “hemp” was high-grade marijuana. Ike was being overly enthusiastic: As a reporter working on a completely different beat, he didn’t realize that this story had been reported on by multiple other outlets through multiple lenses. He didn’t know, for example, that Arlyssa Becenti, a reporter at the Navajo Times, and photographer Sharon Chischilly had been covering it for months in daily breaking stories.
Ike quickly owned up to the mistaken word, to no effect. Searchlight was accused of “extracting” Becenti’s story – taking her work and claiming credit for it. Words like “sexist,” “racist,” and “colonizers” were used to describe us. The truth is that our work was completely original, on-the-ground reporting. The Navajo Times itself found Ed’s story to be important: On the very day that we were being accused of appropriation, the paper ran his piece on its homepage.
These particulars aside, there are serious grievances and necessary conversations that lie at the heart of the Twitter reaction. And Searchlight takes them very seriously.
Native journalists – and all reporters of color – have faced generations of discrimination, both in the profession and in the world at large. Their knowledge and expertise have been ignored – used, borrowed and dumped when convenient. Local journalists too often find themselves “big-footed” by regional and national media — reporters who swoop in for sensationalist stories and swoop out just as quickly. On the Navajo Nation, this kind of experience is framed by historic discrimination and genocide. These are profoundly serious issues, and for that reason they deserve a more thoughtful discussion than is possible to have on Twitter. It would be a shame if an ill-placed word in a single tweet superseded the story itself – and the larger problem of crediting hard-working journalists.
We at Searchlight are committed to addressing the underlying problems. We are dedicated to bringing diverse voices and perspectives to our reporting and photography. We distribute our stories, photographs, videos and Diné translations to the Navajo Times, Indian Country Today, Native Public Media, and 40 other media partners across New Mexico and beyond. That mission will not change.
Clarification: This letter has been updated to clarify that Searchlight’s investigation was published on the Navajo Times website, not their print edition. We apologize for this error.
Executive Director and Editor
Searchlight New Mexico