Native Americans, pipelines, and journalists: How to cover disasters

NEW ORLEANS – Pipelines and other environmentally harmful practices continue to run roughshod over indigenous land and freedoms. At the 2016 Excellence in Journalism conference this week, journalists discussed the double-edged sword currently pointed at Native American communities: on one hand, they must contend with the ravaging of their reservations and culture; on the other, mainstream media either ignores or misrepresents their struggles. Journalists and indigenous activists gathered at this event, organized by the Society of Professional Journalists, to solve both problems.

Not a victory

Misleading news coverage of indigenous issues was represented by a recent example: many around the country celebrated the Obama administration’s September 9 halting of construction of part of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. “The Justice Department has only shut down the 20-mile stretch of pipeline near Standing Rock, but not the rest,” said Stephanie Tsosie, a member of the Navajo Nation and an associate attorney with Earthjustice. “Unfortunately,” she continued, “the pipeline is already 60 percent built. This is not a victory – for us or for the Earth.” She added that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was left out of the decision-making process. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t consult them until the pipeline had already been planned out and gone through the state permitting process. The decision was basically made before Native people were consulted.”

Pipelines have spilled into the news as of late, with a major gas spill (nearly 6,000 barrels) occurring in central Alabama, just outside of Helena. The culprit? A burst gasoline pipeline owned by Colonial Pipeline. The leak happened more than a week ago, but is only getting coverage now. At the same time, indigenous groups have come here to New Orleans, itself the site of the worst oil company disaster in history, to raise awareness about the harm caused by the fossil fuel industry.

Journalists attending the session listened to an audio clip originally broadcast on Native America Calling. A caller, Virgil, from Little Eagle, South Dakota, said: “The people that are trying to destroy our land – where our families and ancestors were buried – those people have no reverence for anything on this Earth. That’s why we have to vote and pay attention to who’s being elected. We were the first here; that is written in the ground. And we need to get involved.”

A shift in tone

This would seem especially true considering the way that some mainstream media have covered the Sioux tribe since the April start of the #NoDAPL protest. Native protesters say they have been demonized and misrepresented, and many of the people covering their stories do not respect their culture or their customs. As a result, Native people “are trying to take control of the narrative,” said Tsosie. “So they banned certain media, like FOX News, from coming onto the reservation. You have to earn respect and trust.”

One of the journalists attending asked how the Sioux tribe and other indigenous people can ban certain news companies, yet also criticize the media for lack of or inaccurate coverage.

Jason Begay, Navajo Nation member and associate professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, said: “When the demonstrations over the pipeline were happening, I took a couple of students out to Standing Rock over Labor Day weekend. That afternoon, the incident happened with the dogs and mace used on peaceful protesters. After that, there was a shift in tone, and understandably so. There was a lot more checking and asking, in terms of who was going there to do what.”

But it wasn’t only issues of security and safety that weighed on the minds of Native people. “There’s kind of this new stereotype of the ‘angry, protesting Native American.’ We need to change how our people are being depicted in the news. This needs to be framed as something that’s happening to them, not as them simply ‘being against something’ or being anti-government.”

Some indigenous news reporters have been trying to draw more attention to events like the Standing Rock standoff, partly by involving themselves in the action.

That, however, is also risky, according to Tristan Ahtone, who is on the board of directors for the Native American Journalists Association. “Part of the issue is, we needed facts from Standing Rock, and there was a lot of misinformation spread across social networks,” like claims of incidents in which no sources were cited, or “sharing of wrong photos or captions. Since the big media outlets are [barely] bothering to show up, we need to get this right.”

Begay elaborated: “When the [security guard] attack happened, we had plenty of memes” and impassioned Tweets and Facebook posts, “but not much investigative journalism. There were photos on social media that had nothing to do with Standing Rock. There was a lack of fact-checking. The line between social media/blogs/self-publishing and journalism is beginning to blur. But for journalists, holding on to old school ethics continues to be important.”

Not a cut-and-dry issue

But, workshop leaders added, social media is a powerful tool to mobilize activists and to quickly get the word out – especially in a climate where major media turns a blind eye, or is hostile to groups like indigenous tribes.

Begay also noted that this is not a cut-and-dry issue. “There’s also the question of whether using a hashtag – for example, #IStandWithStandingRock – to promote a story represents crossing that line, because once you do, it can be argued that you’re taking part in activism. Others think that using such a hashtag in an article is still strictly journalistic if it can be done in an unbiased way.” By contrast, he said, “Others feel that objectivity is an illusion; that it’s better to recognize your biases and manage them.”

Disasters like those in Standing Rock have the potential to connect emotionally with many people because they involve actions that directly harm the environment. “The key is to find commonalities in reporting on a story like Standing Rock,” said Ahtone, “which will resonate with readers who perhaps live in another area; find that human element that reaches and grabs people.”

Photo: At Standing Rock camp. Michelle Zacarias | PW


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have also appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the 2010 BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Illinois and frequently visits Europe. He likes cats, wine, books, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music reaction channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel.