Five questions with Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton will speak at the Anvil Rural Journalism Conference on April 8 in Lincoln. We took a moment to get to know each other a little better. Register to attend the conference (in person or online) here. And here’s our five questions for Lenzy.

Fly Over Media: What’s your current job? Or, what’s your particular area of focus these days?

Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton: I am a full-time freelancer. Although a lot of my work deals with Indian Country, I cover a little bit of everything ranging from high school sports to energy to health care. Just depends on who’s got an open checkbook on any given day.

FOM: What’s your personal background? How did you come into your field of work and study?

LKB: My dad has been at the Tulsa World since the Carter administration, so I grew up around reporters. I’ve stepped away from journalism a couple of times — I earned a master’s in international studies in part because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just sticking with what I knew. I’ve had a couple of forays into public relations in order to pay the bills, but neither was a good fit.

I became a full-time freelancer out of economic necessity. I got out of school just in time for the Great Recession to hit and it was either leave journalism behind — something I really didn’t want to do — or embrace the hustle. I’ve had a couple of offers for full-time gigs in the last two years, but the timing in my personal life just wasn’t right for either.

As for how I wound up covering Indian Country, to borrow from the animated movie “Robots,” it was a matter of “See a need, fill a need.” Since I had a few contacts with a couple of tribes and some decent clips, the Tulsa World took a chance on me as a freelancer several years ago when the tribal affairs reporter moved on. It’s just sort of snowballed over the years as I’ve built up more sources around Oklahoma.

FOM: A lot of your work focuses specifically on Native American issues. How can journalism serve Native American communities better? Where has it fallen short?

LKB: Part of how journalism has fallen short when it comes to covering AI/AN communities is that unless there’s a huge controversy going on (i.e. the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline protests) or if its a hyperlocal publication like a couple of my regular clients, the coverage just isn’t there. Given the dearth of Native journalists in newsrooms, chances are there isn’t someone in the editorial meetings advocating for that to change.

Look beyond the easy stories and the “poverty porn.” For example, instead of focusing the disproportionate rate of diabetes in AI/AN communities, look at either the institutional factors that helped cause it (hello, reservation-era rations and commods!) or innovative solutions to address the problem (i.e. a tribe opening up a grocery store to improve access to fresh, healthy food).

Journalists can also better serve AI/AN communities simply by watching their word choices and tone more carefully in stories. It’s 2017, and yet, the Native American Journalists Association is still having to contact outlets asking them to quit using “powwow” as a synonym for a meeting or to back off on the “Dances With Wolves” rhetoric when talking about volunteer efforts on a reservation.

FOM: In what ways have you seen journalism/reporting affect tangible change on a community?

LKB: The most recent example that comes to mind is a special election sparked by a story. The Osage Nation approved a referendum on March 20 allowing its judicial branch to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. The original impetus for the measure was a 2015 AP story about tribes not being bound by the SCOTUS ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges. The story referenced the Osages having a Defense of Marriage Act on the books, which spurred one of the tribe’s legislators to draft a repeal and replacement measure.

FOM: Does your approach differ if you are writing for a rural audience versus about a rural community to an outside audience?

LKB: For me, the biggest difference in approach when writing for a rural audience versus about a rural community is the amount of background information that has to be included. For example, I regularly cover the Osage Nation for an Osage County newspaper. As hinted at in “August: Osage County,” it’s a predominantly rural county, as the most populous community is the sliver of Tulsa that spills over the county line. The Osage County locals are familiar with the tribe’s government set up, programs, etc., while readership of some of my other clients (i.e. Tulsa World) can’t necessarily say the same thing.

See some of Lenzy’s work at the links below:

Caney Valley senior fights for eagle feather in graduation cap (Cherokee Phoenix)

Native tribes look to improve food access through economic development (Center for Health Journalism)