Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

516. Database proves vital source of pandemic news for Indigenous people

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye needed a break. 

Her intense undergrad work as an athletic training major was heavy in science and she thought a class in video production and blogging sounded like a fun change of pace. 

“I accidentally fell into journalism,” she says. “I came to the first day of class and got the syllabus and it was news media writing. I thought, ‘Holy cow, what did I get myself into.’”

Bennett-Begaye is now the first female executive and top editor of Indian Country Today, a 40-year-old independent, nonprofit, multimedia news enterprise that serves the Indigenous community across the United States. Originally from New Mexico, growing up on Navajo Nation ground, she’s also a board member of the Native American Journalists Association

“I love that I get to learn every single day. It suits very much my personality, which is talking to people, learning their stories, learning what drives them and motivates them,” she says. “We’re all different. I love seeing how the world works and how the world is interconnected, which is what the pandemic is showing us now. We’re relying on each other.” 

When Bennett-Begaye started at Indian Country Today, the editorial staff consisted of three people; now there are 22 full-time employees in addition to part-time and contracted staff. It’s a good thing the newsroom has grown so much, because Indian Country Today has become a vital source of information during the pandemic, and not just to its intended audience. 

“The first thing I saw was, before it was called a pandemic, what does this mean to our tribes,” Bennett-Begay says. “I was always fascinated with epidemics, outbreaks, infectious diseases. When I was tracking this overseas and saw it coming, I thought, I had to ask the question, are our tribes in trouble? I had to reach out to experts to see what the situation looked like, what emergency preparedness situations were like, what the resources were. Tribes weren’t ready. Over time, when it hit Indian country first, the first case got there and even my own homeland, the Navajo, it spread like wildfire.” 

Bennett-Begay decided to work on a database, starting from a spreadsheet, to track cases and help share the public information available about the pandemic with her readers and viewers. 

“Tribal officials shared the data online on their website or even on their social media pages, press releases and radio stations. I had to provide proof, this is where I’m getting data and it’s publicly available. That transparency was really important, that’s what people are looking for,” she says. 

Making all her data public and shareable helped Indian Country Today, and her reporting, gain credibility and reach. 

“This native epidemiologist asked if she could map my data. She created hotspots. She came at the right time. She linked us up with Johns Hopkins and they partnered with us to build a comprehensive database for Indian Country, with interactive maps with country and tribal lands on top of each other so you can see where cases are happening. We were the only ones keeping a mortality rate. Nowhere else in the country was keeping track of that data for Native people,” she says. 

For the gaps in public health information and access initially, Bennett-Begay’s work also helped highlight some of the strengths of the Indian Health System: While it was taking months, initially, to get vaccinated in Virginia, her whole family back in New Mexico had already been vaccinated.

“I went home and got vaccinated. I was surprised when I got in how it was so organized. They had every vaccine available. It’s important for people to know that health care is part of our treaties. … If people couldn’t get vaccinated at local hospitals or clinics, hospitals owned by tribes were opening lines to non-Native people. It showed the generosity and love we had for each other as humans.”

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye tells It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell how Indian Country Today built a database to help provide vital pandemic information to Indigenous communities across the country.

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