Standing Rock: Native journalists torn between passion and neutrality

A photographer for the international news agency AFP takes photos of the Colorado River tribes of Arizona in their ceremonial outfits as they walk into the Standing Rock camp outside of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Mark Sundeen, a reporter for Outside Magazine, said most visuals coming out of Standing Rock showed similar scenes. “It’s like crack for reporters to see Native Americans in their traditional regalia, but that’s just not what this story is about.”

Story by Jason Begay, photos by Olivia Vanni

See more of MJR’s Standing Rock Coverage with this interactive web documentary.

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 standing 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 1,172-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 Communications and a Navajo from northern New Mexico, instantly felt a connection to the people and the cause.

Then came the incident. Bennett-Begaye took a video of the Sept. 3, 2016, 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 crawling through a fence, followed by a child. 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 her loyalties clear. “Personally, I believe there’s no such thing as objectivity,” she said. “We’re influenced by our background, what we see as stories … I have to cover both sides. But it’s definitely a struggle … I identify myself as Diné [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 strayed from 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. At the end of October, the Native American Journalists Association released a media guide, in part to remind tribal journalists in particular to remain objective and avoid supporting the Standing Rock camp on 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 Red 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 and media organizer. “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. I know they like the word protector. I think that ‘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-TV, which featured a number of hand-picked clips of camp supporters blocking KFYR-TV 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-TV 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 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 not from the same tribe as 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.”

 Jason Begay completed his term as president of the Native American Journalists Association in September. He is currently an associate professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism where he teaches the Native News Honors Project. He is a former reporter for the Navajo Times, The Oregonian and The New York Times.

Olivia Vanni is a senior at the University of Montana, graduating this spring. She spent her summer working as a photo intern for the Missoulian newspaper and enjoying the perks of Missoula in the summer. She is currently the multimedia editor for the Montana Kaimin, is the staff photographer for the 2017 Edition of the Montana Journalism Review and enjoys all things photo.