Following a five-day trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a team of journalism students and a professor have been at the center of a lot of media attention, a sign that coverage of the intertribal stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline is both sorely lacking but also highly sought after.
During Labor Day weekend, Associate Professor Jason Begay and three students—grad students Matt Roberts and Lailani Upham, and undergrad senior Olivia Vanni—drove to the North Dakota campsite where an estimated 250 tribes have gathered to stand against a massive oil pipeline project.
“The Journalism School faculty thought it made sense that we have a student presence at Standing Rock, since we consider ourselves to be leaders in Native American journalism,” said Begay, who teaches the Native News reporting teams to the Montana’s seven reservations every spring. “But I don’t think we anticipated the kid of attention we eventually found.”
The students were reporting for the Montana Journalism Review (MJR) and were looking to research how the media was covering the Standing Rock camp. Standing Rock Sioux tribal members have been camping at the site since May, as they challenge the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would pump nearly 1,200 barrels of oil from the Eastern North Dakota to Illinois.
Although the pipeline wouldn’t go into tribal lands, it would cross the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation, including through an area sacred to the tribe.
The campsite has been billed as a non-violent demonstration by participants, but during the MJR reporting trip, violence rocked the area as tribal supporters and pipeline employees and security guards clashed over the construction site.
“It wasn’t overt, but we could sense a shift in tone at the camp after that event,” Begay said. “Everyone was just a little more cautious about who to talk to and why so many media reps had finally showed up.”
Media attention increased exponentially for both the campsite and the reporting team. Before the team left North Dakota, they were interviewed for stories by both a Missoula TV and radio station. Begay was invited to write a story for the Butte Standard. Other programs that featured interviews and photos from the team include Public Radio International, Native America Calling and the Navajo Times.
Begay was also invited to talk about the trip on two panels at the Excellence in Journalism conference in New Orleans in mid-September.
“News media is really starved for any kind of on-the-ground coverage of the Standing Rock camp,” Begay said. “Most of the media present at the site have been either local to the Bismarck area or the big outlets. Smaller, regional news companies really seem interested, but lack the resources to send their own people.”
The Montana Journalism Review team is posting content from the trip on its Medium page and is expected to feature a longer story and media analysis
of the trip in its 2016 edition, due out later this year.