Standing Rock Reporting Trip Gets Big Attention

MJR students and J-School Professor Jason Begay on the road to Standing Rock.
Montana Journalism Review (MJR) students and J-School Professor Jason Begay on the road to Standing Rock.

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.

Biogeochemistry Professor and J-school Collaborate through NSF Grant

When University of Montana biogeochemistry Professor Cory Cleveland begins a new project in Panama this summer, a young journalist will be coming along for the ride.

Cleveland will build on his long-held conviction that “a fundamental piece of good science is to communicate it effectively,” when he embeds a graduate student from UM’s Master’s program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism with his research team to document their fieldwork at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A lift-out quote reading “It’s an innovative model of collaboration between journalism and the sciences that we hope will serve as a model for other research efforts at the University of Montana.” Scientists often struggle to convey the meaning of their work to the general public. Cleveland says the approach of bringing in a journalist from the beginning helped his proposal stand out and get funding from the National Science Foundation in a highly competitive application process. It will allow him to focus on his research while at the same time helping to create better communication. “I’m never going to do as well at that as someone who’s an expert and a professional journalist,” he said.

The collaboration benefits both sides. For the School of Journalism, the opportunity to document all phases of the research will allow a student to produce compelling stories about a rigorous scientific experiment that has large potential impacts on humanity, said Associate Professor Henriette Lowisch, the UM J-School’s graduate program director, who collaborated with Cleveland on his proposal.

“This will be a huge challenge for an emerging journalist, who will be able to practice all they’ve learned about making complex research accessible to the public,” Lowisch said. “It’s an innovative model of collaboration between journalism and the sciences that we hope will serve as a model for other research efforts at the University of Montana.” Together, Lowisch and Cleveland will select a journalism graduate student to accompany the research team.

In Panama, Cleveland will be testing whether tropical plants are able to get more nutrients from the soil than scientists have previously thought. Tropical forests are among the most productive on Earth, and remove significant amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The plants use CO2 as food to grow, but their growth is ultimately limited by the presence of other nutrients, such as phosphorous, which is scarce in tropical soils. Cleveland’s NSF grant will allow him to study whether tropical plant species have evolved novel ways around this limitation.

The research not only questions conventional wisdom about what plants are capable of, it also carries implications for a world coming to terms with climate change. If Cleveland is right and tropical forests are able to match growing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere with phosphorous and other nutrients in the soil, they’ll act as better carbon sinks, which could help mitigate the effects of burning fossil fuels.

It’s a good story for an up-and-coming journalist, but how to cover it will be a choice the graduate student will make on the ground in Panama. The result will go beyond the traditional press release that tries to explain scientific research to the public, and instead use story, the craft of journalism, to showcase science.

Both Lowisch and Cleveland said that the project leaves the journalism student room to tell the story as he or she best sees fit.

We’re just going to say here’s an opportunity, come do something,” Cleveland says. “Hopefully that benefits them and they can tell something interesting about what we’re doing, or maybe not. There’s no agenda.”

Lowisch said that part of the reason she is excited about doing this collaboration with Cleveland is exactly that understanding. “Both journalism and science are disciplines of verification, and to be able to do that you need to be independent and Cory Cleveland has understood that.”

Adapted from UM news release by Andrew Graham

From hunting stories to hunting fossils

Montana Hodges just brought a suitcase full of fossils back from Alaska and wears Tyrannosaurus Rex shaped earrings. This month she is the lead author of a paper in a geology journal about approximately 200 million year old coral reefs. Believe it or not it was journalism, a career singularly obsessed with the here and now, that brought her here.

Montana Hodges unpacks coral reef fossils after a recent trip to Alaska.
Montana Hodges unpacks coral reef fossils after a recent trip to Alaska. Photo by Andrew Graham

Now, she’s pursing a degree in the University of Montana’s Individualized Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program (I.I.P.). As an undergraduate student at Sacramento State she double majored in journalism and geology. Afterwards Hodges entered the graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism at the University of Montana. Right from the beginning, she knew she wanted to write about fossils for her Masters Project.

Her story, ‘Dinosaur Wars,’ would run on the cover of the August 19, 2013 issue of High Country News, a prestigious environmental news magazine out of Colorado. It described the conflict between for-profit fossil hunters and academic paleontologists. Hodges explored whether this conflict existed to the detriment of the science.

Hodges was nowhere near finished with fossils after receiving her Masters degree however, and decided to pursue an I.I.P. The article didn’t make her the most popular newcomer to the field. “There’s a lot of people in the paleontology community that don’t accept me,” she said.

She’s now studying mass extinctions; points in the Earth’s history where half or more of all living species have been wiped out. Her focus is on an extinction event which occurred around 2 million years ago, probably as a result of global climate change.

In particular, she is studying the massive die off, and eventual recovery, of coral reefs. Her new paper describes coral reef fossils found in Nevada, which was underwater 2 million years ago. They’re the earliest examples of coral’s recovery after the extinction.

Journalism has helped her with her new work Hodges thinks, particularly in her ability to write clear and succinct scientific papers. Though the writing is more technical, she says the foundation remains the same. Her reporting career has also helped. “I think journalists are trained to do excellent research,” she said.

Hodges hopes her current work with coral will eventually lead to a better understanding of the perils coral reefs face today. According to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, coral reefs face near extinction as a result of warming temperatures.  There is a story of recovery too, says Hodges, and even though it’s a story predicting far into the future, it’s one she’s particularly well equipped to tell.

By Andrew Graham