Covering Standing Rock: The local newspaper perspective
By Jason Begay and Matt Roberts
The events surrounding the ongoing conflict between supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Inc., the company behind the nearly 1,200-mile Dakota Access pipeline construction project, present many challenges for media covering the issue.
The campsite, which is just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where hundreds have gathered to support stopping construction is relatively isolated, both in terms of geography and in terms of digital networks. Cell phone reception is hard to find, and there is no Wi-Fi. Many campers and reporters alike have been relying on the nearby Prairie Knights Casino for digital communication.
About an hour north of the campsite is the newsroom of the Bismarck Tribune, the daily paper based of North Dakota’s capital city.
To better understand the challenges that face local media, we sat down with Steve Wallick, the Tribune’s editor, and Kimberley Wynn, its city editor, to talk about how they’ve approached covering the events at Standing Rock.
MJR: How long have you been covering Standing Rock and what were some of the initial challenges in doing so?
Wallick: We’ve been following this story since the spring. We haven’t been there constantly, but we’ve gone back. Just about every reporter on our staff at one time or another has done part of the coverage and gone to the camp. Things started to build as the court case came closer and they called people to come, so the camp grew, probably bigger and faster than we expected it to. It was kind of a case of learning as we went along, trying to figure out what direction this was going in. It became more than a North Dakota story.
Wynn: Logistically it’s been a challenge because there’s a lot of moving parts to the story. There’s various tribes and various law enforcement agencies. There’s the governor’s office, the protestors themselves, and the company that’s involved. So getting to each of those almost on a daily basis is a challenge.
MJR: Many of those at the camp have said that they’re unhappy with media coverage because they feel like they are frequently portrayed as aggressive and violent. Is that an accurate analysis of media coverage?
Wallick: No, not really. Locally I don’t think so. We’ve done a variety of stories on the camps starting from when the first spirit camp was established, and one of our reporters has a good relationship with one of the organizers of the camp. I’m sure there are times when they don’t like our coverage, but we’ve tried to provide as balanced coverage as possible. Are we doing everything right? No. Could we be doing things better? Of course. When it’s over we’ll step back, take a look, and talk about things we could do better.
Wynn: People don’t differentiate necessarily between a news story and a letter to the editor. Especially online. We discussed last week how we can better let people know that this is a letter to the editor they’re reading online and not our news coverage. I think that’s been a source of confusion for a lot of people.
MJR: How do you feel the Bismarck Tribune’s relationship with the tribe has been even before this?
Wallick: I’ve been here a long time and covering the reservations, whether it’s Standing Rock or Fort Berthold [Indian Reservation northwest of Bismarck, home of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara tribes], the other reservation that’s in our region. It’s difficult to do. Unless you have somebody there on a regular basis, it’s hard. But I think that over the years we’ve done a pretty good job of covering certain issues. We try to get down there and cover some of the other programs and things they’ve been doing down there, whether it’s different school programs they do or different faith-based programs they’ve done. So we try, but we don’t get there as much as we should or as we’d like. We don’t have a huge staff. There’s many interesting stories to be done.
Wynn: I think that one of the good things about this situation is that it has opened up more lines of communication between us and those who are Native American or those who are interested in those issues. I’ve added quite a number of Facebook friends in the past couple of weeks from those communities that otherwise I wouldn’t have known about.
MJR: Have you had luck in recruiting reporters from the reservations?
Wallick: We have trouble recruiting reporters from all over North Dakota, so it’s not just a reservation issue. We have a good staff, but a large number of them are from other states. Why is that? I haven’t got the answer. We do have some North Dakota-grown journalists, but not as many as we’d like.
MJR: It’s common for border-town newspapers to have a lack of resources. In a perfect world, what would you like to have, to give this the coverage it deserves?
Wallick: In a perfect world it’d be nice to have a stringer that you could rely on to provide you with stories, or sometimes not so much stories but ideas, and to give you the updates on ongoing issues that they may have going on down there. There are times when they may have an internal issue that’d be interesting to write about, but we’re just not aware of it at the time as it hasn’t filtered its way up here yet. It’s kind of isolated down there. Those are the challenges of knowing what’s going on, keeping updated, and knowing sometimes whether you’re getting a straight story or not.