Yesterday the Standing Rock Sacred Camp made many headlines. The news media in the US and in Canada is starting to talk about what’s happening at Standing Rock Reservation.
Though larger news outlets are picking up on the story, most coverage is still coming through smaller Indigenous media outlets like Indian Country Today Media Network, and alternative media outlets like Democracy Now!
Why Coverage Now?
The conflict in this story has heated up in the past month. On September 3, the pipeline company hired a private security firm to protect the construction attempts. They brought dogs.
The dogs bit protesters. The security guards pepper-sprayed about thirty people. The dogs injured six protestors.
This earned more coverage. Violence is direct, clear conflict. In terms of news value, the impact, human interest and conflict aspects of the story increase. This incident also provided a fairly typical black and white construction of the situation. Whenever there’s one group going against another, people tend to identify it as “us vs. them.” This rhetoric, where pronouns signify the difference between me and the other, is referred to as rhetoric of the other.
Otherizing rhetoric is dangerous. Historically it’s been used to placate the public on massive human rights violations. The big examples are the Holocaust and colonization. It’s worth noting that colonization is the source of the conflict at Standing Rock right now.
Yesterday the court responded to Standing Rock’s request to stop pipeline construction. The judge denied this request. Shortly after, the Department of Justice, Dept. of the Army and the Dept. of the interior issued a statement saying they would pause construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River.
News outlets portrayed this Federal statement as Obama stepping in. In reality, the statement came from those departments, and aligned with a statement given by Obama earlier. He said he would hold consultations with Indigenous tribes in fall to determine if they have to change the construction rules to protect Indigenous lands.
The violence grabbed news attention, and the court decision and federal statement held that attention. Over a month into an organized, stable and peaceful protest, Standing Rock is finally earning regular news coverage.
What Kind of Coverage?
Some say any press is good press. This is true if you’re looking to be infamous. But otherwise, press can be bad.
It may not necessarily be directly negative press, but the way news outlets tell stories impacts how people understand a situation.
We’ll stick to national news outlets when analyzing coverage. I plan to focus on the CBC because I’m Canadian and because they are a publicly funded news provider, meaning they’re supposed to produce news that serves public interest. I will also highlight an American national news outlet.
Coverage of violence:
“A protest of a four-state, $3.8-billion oil pipeline turned violent after tribal officials say construction crews destroyed American Indian burial and cultural sites on private land in southern North Dakota.
Morton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said four private security guards and two guard dogs were injured after several hundred protesters confronted construction crews Saturday afternoon at the site just outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.” — Associated Press, published online by CBC
This quote is the first two sentences of the article. The first sentence of an article is called the lede, and is supposed to clearly show the meat of the story. Most journalists ask themselves “who cares?” when writing ledes. Who does this impact? What’s the impact on my reader? These questions allow them to write a lede that can hook a reader.
The second sentence presents the voice of law enforcement, which to some is the enemy, and others the just hand of the state. When people read, the mind ranks information by importance, which is usually influenced by position in the piece. Because this sentence tells the side of the state and private security firm, it inevitably prioritizes those experiences and voices.
The wording is questionable, too. “Several hundred protesters confronted construction crews.” What sort of confrontation? What counts as confrontation? Were they doing what they’ve been doing for the past month, including standing on construction equipment and sitting in the way? As far as I understand, these are peaceful methods of protest people have employed throughout history. The kind of peaceful protest that is supposedly protected by law in a democratic society.
If the confrontation came from the protesters, why was there a private security firm present now? The attack on protestors must have been directed by someone. If the protesters were continuing to do what they’d been doing for a month, wouldn’t the confrontation come from the new security guys on the scene?
This is where TV reporting would come in handy. If readers saw the situation, they could experience the situation in a most accurate way. It’s true that editing and filming techniques can influence perspectives, but nothing can show a situation like live video.
Where we rank information in news stories impacts how important that information seems. Placing information on the injured security guards implicitly prioritizes their story. This confuses me considering those guards were hired for the purpose of confrontation. I don’t think the dogs came just to hang out and get some pats (though it’s great if they did — pats are important).
Coverage of Court Ruling:
There’s only one part of this article that stuck out to me because of language.
“The almost 1,700-kilometre long pipeline would carry light sweet crude oil from the Bakken oilfield in North Dakota near the Canadian border to Illinois.”
What is “light sweet crude oil”? Is this a particular form of oil? I should do my research, but solely from a language perspective, there must be better adjectives for this particular kind of oil. If it’s light and sweet, I want to eat it. But I bet I don’t want this oil on my pancakes.
This coverage focuses on the federal ruling and the stakes involved. The pipeline costs about $3.8 billion.
The article says the Feds “asked” the companies to stop construction. This implies they haven’t legally prevented construction. Instead they are politely asking… In a capitalist system that runs on profit and money, asking politely demonstrates a power dynamic between the Feds and the construction and pipeline companies.
Imagine we’re sharing a sandbox, and you want to build something across the sand I’m playing in. I wanted to use that sand, so I reason with you that you have your own sand to use, and it doesn’t have to interfere with mine. You keep building anyway. Then the teacher comes out and asks you politely not to build using my sand.
This is an example of good reporting, where language is accurately representing the factors at play. Paying attention to small works like “ask,” “tell,” “said,” and others can offer insight into a situation that isn’t stated explicitly.
So I’ve only chosen one example. I’m including CNN because they are a large news network and they have the capacity to have TV cameras on the ground, if they wanted.
“The battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline has intensified, with heated protests and an attempt for an emergency halt in construction.”
I wonder what the word “heated” means. Are people getting red in the face and sweaty? Or does this imply violence?
All of the Facebook coverage I have seen coming directly from Sacred Stone Camp emphasizes non-violence. People are adamantly non-violent. They understand that if the press sees violence coming from the protestors, that will dominate the conversation.
CNN posted this article before the judge made a decision. The article outlines wants of both parties, including reasons for lawsuit and reasons for the pipeline.
Towards the end, the article states the protest got violent.
“Protests against the pipeline turned violent in North Dakota over the weekend, with some demonstrators breaking down a wire fence and trespassing onto a construction area, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said.”
So What’s the Point?
If nothing else, read your news carefully, and read it from more than one place please.