What media can learn from the coverage of #NoDAPL water protectors

In the days since news broke that the Dakota Access Pipeline would be rerouted, we’ve been thinking about the overarching narrative and the media’s coverage of it.

The narrative has been one of perseverance and strength.

After the August arrest of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman, peaceful protestors remained steadfast. In September, Obama’s administration requested that “the pipeline company pause all construction near Lake Oahe.” Throughout October, more protesters arrived from around the world. Law enforcement continued arresting protesters, among them journalist Amy Goodman.

Regardless, the support for #NoDAPL grew. In early November, over 1.7 million people used Facebook to “check in” at Standing Rock in solidarity with the water protectors. On the dawn of Thanksgiving, in unfathomable layers of irony, police unleashed water hoses and tear gas on unarmed water protectors in sub-zero temperatures.

Although fake news and sensational headlines undermined the people whose story they sought to tell, water protectors persevered. Last Sunday, a day after over 2,000 veterans arrived to support the Standing Rock protest, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, denying the drilling and construction of the 1,172-mile oil pipeline.

Against all odds, peaceful protesters defied what had been called inevitable by standing together in unwavering unity. The victory seemed like a long shot, especially considering how up until recently, mainstream media ignored the #NoDAPL movement and its water protectors.

While Standing Rock water protectors were making history, there was shallow coverage of Standing Rock and other environmental and public health issues that plague the United States.

This lack of in-depth coverage could be linked to a larger issues, including the lack of diversity in newsrooms. In “Shallow coverage of Standing Rock is part of a bigger problem,” Meredith D. Clark writes: “The issue facing Native Americans at Standing Rock, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota state line, shows how diversity of representation and perspective can lead to better reporting on issues with universal implications for public health and safety.”

Clark says the media focused on the surface of the situation without considering how #NoDAPL protests’ link to multiple ongoing water issues in the country. “The broader picture links the struggle against the pipeline’s construction to the number of days the people of Flint, Mich., have been without clean water,” Clark writes. “And the $7 million fine Duke Energy has agreed to pay the state of North Carolina after a 39,000-ton coal ash spill in 2014. And the spike in East Coast gas prices after an Alabama pipeline exploded earlier this year, killing one person and injuring six others.”

Part of the problem has to do with how the media framed the issue. “Standing Rock being framed as ‘their’ problem: dozens of photos and b-roll loops show Native Americans, dressed in traditional garb, participating in traditional practices, fighting to protect ancestral lands that are protected by U.S. treaties,” Clark writes. “Instantly, the Dakota Access Pipeline is framed as a single tribe’s concern rather than an issue that could impact millions of people connected to the Missouri River.”

Despite the shortcomings, there were some thoughtful stories that emerged during the protests. Noteworthy coverage includes “Maangozit cuts his braid—and leaves a blessing at Standing Rock” by Mary Annette Pember for Indian Country Today Media Network; “#NoDAPL movement delivers supplies to local sheriff’s department” by Yessenia Funes for COLOR LINES; “Young Latinos see unity, hope in Standing Rock protests” by John Paul Brammer for NBC News; and “The media’s Standing Rock problem looks a lot like its Black Lives Matter problem” by Susie Neilson for Quartz.

In the weeks and months ahead, journalists have an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to their coverage of Standing Rock — by focusing not just on the tension but on stories of understanding and forgiveness.

As Chief Leonard Crow Dog said after Wes Clark Jr.’s apology during Monday’s forgiveness ceremony, “We do not own the land. The land owns us.”

Scroll to Top