The story that unfolded in the plains of North Dakota was bright with colors, fraught with history and packed with action.
An exciting opportunity for journalists, and yet one that brought extraordinary challenges. When it came to covering the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, reporters often met with antagonism, both from law enforcement and from activists.
A special reporting team from Montana Journalism Review examined the media’s performance at Standing Rock for several months in 2016. Our reporters traveled to North Dakota before things heated up in late summer, then went again in November, when daily confrontations raised the tone of opposing narratives to a fever pitch. In December, an MJR photographer witnessed the celebrations following the Army Corps of Engineer’s decision to explore other routes for the pipeline.
During all three trips to Standing Rock, the team from the University of Montana followed up on charges that traditional media were either biased against the movement or absent from covering it.
Our reporters experienced the difficult conditions at Standing Rock, from a lack of internet access to the challenges of traveling in remote areas.
They spoke to people on the ground and learned why mostly partisan narratives on social media overtook old-fashioned reporting methods.
They wrestled with conflicts of interest, particularly when it came to Native American journalists covering the struggle in Indian Country.
From images and videos to maps and words, these are their stories.
By Kathleen Stone
In April of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe started actively protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline through demonstrations that eventually lead to a national movement. While Standing Rock brought us to a conversation about energy, the environment and tribal sovereignty, it also raised questions about the media’s ability to inform that conversation.
A cocktail of limited internet access, complicated laws and treaties and competition for control of the narrative led journalists into unprecedented territory in North Dakota. Traditional media outlets were frequently criticized for neglecting the story, while a Google News search in late November 2016 yielded 1.6 million results for “Standing Rock.” Demonstrators blamed professional journalists for focusing on violence, but even on social channels, interest spiked whenever violence occurred. The vast majority of people at the Standing Rock camps said they learned about the movement from social media, not traditional media, yet social media repeatedly spread misinformation about developments on the ground.
Faced with these dilemmas, how did journalists perform in telling the story of Standing Rock?
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to the pipeline went public on April 1, 2016, when tribal members rode to the construction site and established the first spirit camp on the Cannonball River. At the time, the local paper, the Bismarck Tribune, and local TV station KFYR covered the demonstration. Even the Guardian published an article about the horseback ride.
It would take a few months, however until traditional media outside the region truly caught up to the story. Over the summer, even local media coverage was sparse. Those who wanted to learn about the burgeoning movement against the pipeline had to pay attention to alternative media sources such as Indian Country Today, Unicorn Riot, DemocracyNow! and ThinkProgress. Interest grew when celebrities like Shailene Woodley visited the camps.
This all changed once the Standing Rock Sioux took their opposition of the pipeline to the nation’s capital. On August 4, 2016, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, asking that it cancel the permits granted to the Dakota Access Pipeline. The weekend after, a group of Native American youth completed a 2,000-mile run to deliver a petition against the construction project to the White House in Washington, D.C.
Around that time, national media organizations started to perceive Standing Rock as a bigger story than a few campers in North Dakota. In the week after the lawsuit was filed, The New York Times published a few Associated Press articles, and on August 23, ran its first story with original content. The day after, it published an op-ed by David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, giving the movement a voice on the national stage.
Then came Labor Day weekend. When Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman filmed a confrontation between private security and demonstrators on Sept. 3, 2016, the video quickly went viral and people started questioning where the “mainstream media” were. That same weekend, Montana Journalism Review reporters visited Standing Rock for the first time. They spoke with reporters from the AFP, Outside Magazine, FX News and MSNBC.
Amy Goodman’s work raised questions for media consumers and producers alike. She was heralded as the antithesis of “mainstream media.” She immersed herself in her coverage in a way that was refreshing to some, and unethical to others. Journalists across the country closed ranks around her, however, when Morton County issued a warrant for her arrest, which many saw as a threat to freedom of speech.
The charges against Goodman were later dropped, but other journalists were caught in the crosshairs. Rumors circulated that law enforcement targeted members of the media. Erin Schrode, a journalist and activist, was hit by a rubber bullet mid-interview. Deia Schlosberg, a documentarian, was facing 45 years in prison after filming an activist at a demonstration against a different pipeline elsewhere in North Dakota.
The Standing Rock demonstrators themselves challenged journalists as well. As media representatives descended on the camps, they were often met with mistrust on the part of movement spokespeople. On top of the hill where limited cell service was available, organizers erected a media tent where all journalists had to register. There, reporters received instructions on what they could and could not take photos of.
The Bismarck Tribune in particular, drew the wrath of activists. As far back as April it had argued on its opinion page that transporting oil by pipeline was safer than by truck or rail. Although the paper covered the demonstrations extensively, it also discussed the issue from the perspective of the pipeline’s proponents. Many journalists considered this balanced reporting, but demonstrators saw it as favoritism toward the pipeline.
In the clamor for public opinion, both the Standing Rock camps and local law enforcement pushed their side of the story. And as media interest grew, the tone of their statements became increasingly accusatory and high-pitched.
This was most obvious on the adversaries’ respective Facebook pages. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department page, for example, pounded its readers with the assertion that police acted peacefully and only wanted the protesters to be safe, while referring to activists as violent terrorists.
The Facebook page for the Red Warrior Camp, which essentially served as the media and security branch of the Standing Rock camps, transmitted an entirely different narrative while often using the same terms: Its news updates, which were widely read and shared, described police officers as violent terrorists.
Social media as a whole was pivotal, especially for the movement opposing the pipeline. As a direct way to reach supporters, Facebook and other platforms allowed people to tell their own stories. But without trained journalists, this inevitably led to factual errors, and in some cases rumors and fake stories spread widely.
One of the biggest stories that resulted from an unconfirmed rumor was the Facebook check-in movement. After a message circulated stating that police were using Facebook to monitor demonstrators, more than one million people from across the world “checked in” at Standing Rock to express their solidarity.
The Google Trends graph shows search queries for “Standing Rock” in the from September to December 2016. There’s a gradual bump after Labor Day Weekend, when Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow! video went viral. Then, there’s a sharp peak at the beginning of November. This was when Facebook users “checked-in” to show solidarity with Standing Rock. Later, search queries increased after the release of footage showing law enforcement using fire hoses to douse protesters. Finally, search queries increased when the Army Corps of Engineers announced its decision regarding the pipeline.
Almost all media outlets covered the phenomenon. But when news organizations reported that law enforcement said it wasn’t spying on people through Facebook, many commenters accused the media of lying, saying things along the lines of “that’s just what they want you to think.”
Other fake stories on social media included an image of a girl with serious cuts on her face that supposedly documented security personnel violence over Labor Day weekend, but turned out to be a photo of a completely unrelated dog attack. Another image claiming to represent the demonstrations in August was actually a photo of Woodstock. Later in the fall, people at the camps worried that the planes circling overhead were releasing chemicals. In this case, the Red Warrior camp and other Standing Rock representatives insisted that the rumors weren’t true, using social media to inform their followers.
After the camp became a settled fixture in news coverage and in North Dakota, traditional journalists had more time to report and publish in-depth stories. Instead of focusing on violent confrontations, they attempted to explain the camp and the movement more holistically.
The Williston Herald, a North Dakota paper, released a five-part series based on the perspectives of various stakeholders, from local ranchers to environmental activists, from tribal members to journalists. The Los Angeles Times aimed to find some sort of logic in truth and fiction in such a divisive story. Vogue attempted to give its readers a perspective into what camp life is like outside of the confrontations. The New York Times focused on what the camp members eat every day.Those are the kind of stories that demonstrators originally complained weren’t common enough.
By Lailani Upham
The moment the team and I came into sight of the camps I predictably choked back tears. To gaze across the prairie fields and over to the many tribal flags at the entrance was a humbling experience. To witness this unity was, as my Aaniiih and Nakoda people described that day, “powerful.”
The synchronization of indigenous, non-indigenous, environmental and human activists from all across the nation was awe-inspiring.
I felt the spirits of our ancestors there. Many I talked to shared that feeling.
“I was blown away and never expected the welcome and the size of people to be here,” Fort Belknap president Mark Azure said. “What struck me were the flags, all set in proper place. It takes away the individual thought and shows that this is bigger than all of us.”
The gripping presence of the ancestors faded, however, as the here and now demanded more of my mind. After all, our team from the University of Montana School of Journalism had driven across Montana and into the Dakotas with a mission: to gather an ample amount of information within just a couple of days.
The frenzied load wasn’t anything new, far from it. It’s “the nature of the beast” as any journalist knows. But this time, the whirlwind of pressure of whom to talk to; when to take pictures; what to record in my mind of all I’d hear and see: it instigated a loss of balance.
On the second day, when I had but a few hours left at camp, my tiring steps finally led me to sit down with one of our Nakoda traditional elders, Geraldine Rutherford.
Thoughts of a prayer had breathed at my hurrying soul while we roamed through the camps, setting up off-the-cuff interviews.
Now, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Geraldine share her heart, and say what my spirit was waiting for: “So with that, I am going to pray.”
I felt a release of tension as my sense returned to who I am: a Blackfeet, Dakota, Nakoda and Aaniiih woman; and thankful to be given an opportunity to document our history with a passionate team that seeks the hidden Native voice.
By Jason Begay
Even if it weren’t for that incident—with the dogs, the pepper spray and the ensuing victory songs—it was already difficult to be objective on this assignment.
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye had driven from Syracuse, New York, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to research the inter-tribal movement to stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She wanted to conduct interviews and find stories behind the people representing an estimated 280 tribes from across the globe who had come to stop the 1,200-mile line, which would transport up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily across the Midwest.
Bennett-Begaye, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication and a Navajo from northern New Mexico, instantly felt a connection to the people and the cause.
Then the incident. Bennett-Begaye took live video of the Sept. 3 confrontation that ended up waking sleepy media. She shot from behind the crowd, capturing the growing unease as people screamed at the heavy machinery to stop tearing trenches into the hillside. She filmed a woman in a blue dress pushing a child through the fence before crawling between the wire lines herself. As security guards rushed to her, the woman raised a hand in defiance and others started to filter onto the private land. Tribal supporters broke down fence posts, allowing the crowd full access to stand in front of the construction machinery.
Bennett-Begaye filmed the clash until the memory in her iPad ran out, which was before security personnel would use dogs and pepper spray on the crowd. The construction workers would eventually leave and the tribal supporters would claim victory.
“I almost started crying,” Bennett-Begaye said. “It was getting so violent with the bulldozers ripping through the earth.” The incident made clear her loyalties. “There’s no such thing as objectivity,” she said. “We’re influenced by our background, what we see as stories. I identify myself as Dine (Navajo) first then a journalist; as a human being first before my job.”
Bennett-Begaye was not the only young reporter at Standing Rock who eventually abandoned the objective stance expected from professional journalists. Some continued to strive for balance in their news stories while their social media posts ran rampant with support. As of mid-October, the Native American Journalists Association was preparing a media guide, in part to remind tribal journalists in particular to remain objective and avoid supporting the Standing Rock camp in social media.
“It’s important that we provide unbiased coverage,” said Tristan Ahtone, NAJA vice president. Objectivity doesn’t just benefit the news product, but the journalist as well, he said. “If we want to be taken seriously, we have to separate our feelings and our reporting.”
The Standing Rock movement presents an interesting quandary. Throughout its first months, shaky video clips, unfiltered text updates and sprawling 360-degree landscape photos fulfilled the needs of supporters, providing a raw, unfiltered perspective into the camp. Volunteers used social media updates to learn about the movement and get directions around police roadblocks.
At the Warrior Camp, communication leaders made no secret of their distrust of traditional news media.
“At some point you have to withdraw from the system that doesn’t work and build your own thing,” said Desiree Kane, a camp volunteer who coordinated the media check-in system. “And they don’t need journalists. How do you control a narrative? You make your own.”
Crafting an effective narrative for a broader public, however, requires some expertise. Ahtone said he first heard about the Labor Day Weekend clash between DAPL security guards and tribal supporters via Facebook videos. The clips were mostly loud and unedited and, without context, it was difficult to legitimize what he was seeing. “It took a while for me to take it seriously, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a hoax,” Ahtone said at the 2016 Excellence in Journalism conference in New Orleans.
What’s more, the movement and the media didn’t even use the same vocabulary. From the beginning, volunteers insisted they not be referred to as “protesters,” as it connotes imagery of forceful action against a larger system. This is a peaceful movement, they said; they were protecting the water, not protesting.
“I wouldn’t say it’s up to them to decide,” said Steve Wallick, editor of the Bismarck Tribune, the nearest daily newspaper that has been covering the movement since it began in April. “You don’t get to choose, unfortunately. ‘Protest’ is appropriate: They’re not happy with the pipeline, they protested it.”
The Tribune strove to reach all parties for fully balanced stories about the conflict. But that didn’t keep the paper off the Standing Rock media volunteers’ hit lists. A call went out to bar some local outlets from the camp, resulting in an Oct. 11 story, “DAPL protests: Peaceful or not?” by Bismarck TV station KFYR, which featured a number of handpicked clips of camp supporters blocking KFYR cameras from filming on the campsite. In turn, volunteers used the TV story as fuel to ask “White Allies,” via social media, to physically block KFYR cameras and personnel.
This is the point where unstoppable meets immovable, where a raging media machine steeped in tradition and clinical objectivity clashes with a vibrant, passionate force, both equipped and savvy in new media.
For Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, if there ever was a story in which her personal convictions should overshadow journalistic standards, this was it. She went back to the site for an extended stay in October to continue covering the movement and assist in its media relations. Although she is from a tribe that has little in common with the Standing Rock Sioux, she is guided by very similar experiences and passion.
“I use my own judgment, I come from a traditional background,” she said about determining what is appropriate to cover at the site and when to heed the requests of camp volunteers forbidding coverage of specific events. “That’s why they need Native reporters. We know what is sacred and ceremonial to us.”
By Tailyr Irvine
Working as a Native American journalist at Standing Rock is how I imagine it must be for white journalists at just about every other event. For once, being Salish and Kootenai took me out of the minority and placed me in the majority. Photographing my people, and telling their stories, is always a great experience. Still, as with any other assignment, I checked my identity at the door in order to provide accurate coverage.
Reporting at the Oceti Sakowin Camp opened my eyes to the ignorance surrounding the media’s interaction with, and coverage of, Native Americans. Many of my colleagues sought out the authentic Indian doing authentic Indian things. There were thousands of Natives in attendance, but the media tended to focus on Natives in regalia or on horseback. That’s understandable, but journalists have the duty to tell the whole story, even if some parts of it don’t receive as many clicks, views or shares.
I noticed non-Natives interacting with Natives in ways that suggested they had only ever seen Indians in bad Clint Eastwood films. I observed how protesters and journalists offered cigarettes to Natives before speaking with them, or obtained an “Indian name” from anyone with tan skin and braids.
These stereotypical notions fail to recognize Native Americans as contemporary human beings. Yes, Natives do have Indian names, but they earn them through ceremonies where they may or may not accept tobacco. You can speak to them without “offerings,” and they are most likely kidding when they give you an “Indian name,” considering the complexity of naming ceremonies that vary from tribe to tribe.
The camp kept the media on a tight leash, especially the photographers, in an attempt to control the narrative. As a journalist, I found it extremely frustrating to deal with the red tape and with hesitant, at times hostile, subjects. As a Native American, on the other hand, I completely understood where the camp was coming from. After years of slanted coverage full of poverty porn and bogus mascot polls, Indian Country is rightfully skeptical of journalists parachuting in, gathering half-truths and publishing them as if they were the whole story.
That said, I also met many exceptional journalists at Standing Rock committed to telling accurate stories, even if it meant leaving out the sensationalized, stereotypical Indian that America loves.
Social Media Impact
By Matt Roberts
Late in the morning on November 5, 2016, hundreds of people at the Oceti Sakowin camp were circled around Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II as he and other tribal elders led the crowd through a historic Seven Council Fires ceremony. As with any sacred Native American gathering or prayer, photos and video of the event were not allowed.
As the ceremony started, a small, white quadcopter drone that had been buzzing around suddenly came to a hover about 20 feet above the crowd, its cyclopean form defined by the lens of a round, eager camera aimed at the ceremony.
The drone had gotten too close. People yelled, “No drones! No video!” and made exaggerated swatting motions as the drone hovered safely above. A football came sailing into view, but missed its target and landed somewhere in the crowd. Then someone shouted, “Make X’s…like this! They’ll know what it means!” Everyone followed this example and collectively crossed their forearms in front of their bodies above their heads, forming an array of flesh-toned X’s which they trained on the drone’s camera.
Whoever the distant pilot was got the message. The drone whirred away and the ceremony continued.
Filming sacred ceremonies and prayer is a specific offense often violated by media outlets and journalists unfamiliar with Native culture, but within the Oceti Sakowin camp there appears to be deeper distrust and skepticism regarding outside media attempting to document and publicize Native stories. Rather than leaving it up to untethered media outlets, many at Standing Rock have been heavily reliant on social media, primarily Facebook, to tell their own stories.
“Part of what makes this historic is that one of the weapons we have now is our own cameras and our own internet connections to tell our own narratives and stories without having to bow to traditional media outlets that maybe aren’t friendly to the cause,” said Desiree Kane, who in early September of 2016 was acting as a media coordinator at Standing Rock. The ubiquity of cell phones with photo and video capabilities means that almost anyone can document and share a real world experience which, combined with the power of Facebook, can reach large numbers of people.
Mike AmericanHorse, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member who now lives in Salt Lake City but has since returned to Standing Rock to join the movement, expressed his lack of confidence in media outlets telling the Standing Rock story. “They re-word it to fit what they want. We’re just normal people here,” he said the day after the Seven Council Fires ceremony, echoing a common complaint among Standing Rock protesters that the media will often portray them as more violent and aggressive than they feel they are.
AmericanHorse identified Facebook as being instrumental in the movement. “If they shut Facebook down who knows what would be coming out of here? This whole thing would be gone,” he said.
Over the course of the fall in 2016, those at Standing Rock have uploaded social media-based videos, photos and personal accounts documenting the experience. The most controversial uploads have come directly from the front lines of the pipeline construction site where tensions between protesters and local police have been running high, frequently boiling over in the form of arrests, physical altercations, and the use of pepper spray, dogs, rubber bullets and water hoses by the authorities.
This kind of media has garnered a popular response and has resulted in phenomena like over one million people from all over the world “checking in” to the Standing Rock Reservation on Facebook to show support. The Standing Rock Indian Reservation Facebook page currently lists almost 1.7 million visitors.
“I think one thing that shows how significant social media is, is numbers,” said Mark Trahant, a Native American journalist and associate professor of communications at the University of North Dakota. “When Dallas goes online, it’s not uncommon to see ninety or one hundred thousand page views in his counter,” said Trahant of Dallas Goldtooth — a key organizer and spokesperson for the movement at Standing Rock.
The exact number of views attributable to Goldtooth is debatable, but much of the Standing Rock content he shares are photos, videos and posts originating elsewhere that frequently rack up tens of thousands of views. Goldtooth is just shy of one hundred thousand followers on Facebook.
Earlier in the fall of 2016 before Standing Rock had exploded into the international movement it is now, Facebook was the lens though which those interested kept up to date on developments. Labor Day Weekend saw a swell in visitors from places like Montana, New Mexico, Washington and even Florida. Many of them said that they were inspired to make the journey because of their interactions on Facebook, not because of what they were reading in the news.
Labor Day weekend also happened to be the same weekend that a confrontation near the pipeline construction site had authorities resorting to the use of pepper spray and dogs. Democracy Now! was one of the only official media outlets to document the event, but many protesters took personal videos of the event and the clash was widely publicized through Facebook.
Online connectivity at the Oceti Sakowin camp is difficult to establish and reception is limited to just a few hills on the camp periphery. The escalating situation and influx of reporters and visitors has stimulated the transformation of one of these previously bare but receptive hills into a media hub where those at camp can make calls, access email and upload content to Facebook. The hill now features a media check-in tent for outside journalists which is operated by the Indigenous Environmental Network, a tent staffed with lawyers and volunteers offering legal advice, and a solar and wind-powered charging station so that everyone can keep their devices charged and upload content. Many at camp referred to this as “media hill” or sometimes just “the hill.”
Similarly, Prairie Knights Casino, which is about ten miles south of the Oceti Sakowin camp and has wi-fi, became an epicenter of connectivity and was often full of people looking to charge their devices and access the internet. This appeared to be an unwelcome development for the casino as the lobby was later full of signs asking anybody who wasn’t patronizing the casino to leave the premises.
Despite their power, unfettered and unregulated Facebook posts are also prone to misinformation. Trahant continued, “There have been several stories that were flat out not true…I think rumors are really destructive and some of the stories have been not about the issue in a way that was propelling any kind of real discourse forward.”
The dichotomy of Facebook functioning as a tool of empowerment or a bearer of misinformation has recently become a topic of debate in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, so much so that Facebook itself has taken an introspective look at its role in perpetuating falsehoods, and its legitimacy as an objective and accurate source of information is still very much up in the air.
Regarding Standing Rock, Trahant cited a recent rumor circulating on Facebook that planes were spraying harmful chemicals over camps at Standing Rock. Though unverified, it received a lot of attention which prompted Dallas Goldtooth to address it. On November 16, Goldtooth made a Facebook post that read, “At this point there is no verifiable evidence of planes spraying chemicals over the #NODAPL camps. There are rumors and theories, some of which are supposedly based on first-hand accounts.” The post went on to declare, “So at this moment, treat it as a rumor.”
Framing a Movement: The Media at Standing Rock is a special digital experience produced by the student staff of Montana Journalism Review. Our in-depth web documentary explores how the media covered the 2016 Standing Rock movement in North Dakota. MJR sent student reporters and photographers to Standing Rock three times over the course of the fall, to document, observe and interview journalists and other storytellers. In Missoula, a dedicated team created interactive components and edited content.
Standing Rock Special Report Team:
Kathleen Stone, senior editor
Matt Roberts, multimedia reporter
Olivia Vanni, photographer
Kira Vercruyssen, video editor
Zoie Koostra, designer
Jason Begay, reporter
Tailyr Irvine, photographer and reporter
Lailani Upham, reporter
Taylor Crews, Corey Hockett, Anna Reid, Maddie Vincent
Keith Graham firstname.lastname@example.org
Montana Journalism Review is a student-produced annual magazine and accompanying web presence analyzing media coverage in the western United States. It is published by the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula. The Standing Rock web documentary project was made possible by funding from UM J-School Dean Larry Abramson and UM President Royce Engstrom. Thank you!
We welcome everyone’s feedback on our Facebook page.