On Nov 4, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe celebrated a victory as the Department of the Army announced that it would not allow the pipeline to be drilled under the Missouri River. A struggle that have been fought since spring, the media coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline have been visibly scarce compared to the aftermath of the Presidential Election.
Calling themselves “water protectors,” the founders and leaders at Oceti Sakowin camp have asked that they not be referred to as “protestors,” they felt that the media has not covered this event as widely as they have covered anything else. Does this highlight the ethical issue of bias when it comes to media coverage of current events? Does this have to do with the fact that Native Americans are the smallest group of minority in the United States?
One of the reasons of public criticism over the press is because they perceive journalism is bias. Most would say the public focuses more on the bad news than the good. Gene Foreman once said, “Bias exists in part because journalism is a subjective art.” Journalists get to pick everything from which stories to cover, what facts to highlight, and which to make the front page.
When Al Qaeda-affiliated gunmen struck Paris in early 2015, numerous American news organizations ran the Charlie Hebdo story. Meanwhile the Baga massacre by Boko Haram that happened the same week didn’t receive as much coverage in the same organizations. As pointed out Jared Malsin in Columbia Journalism Review, “The discussion about why the killings in Nigeria were ignored underscored an old problem: News from sub-Saharan Africa is underreported.”
Whereas the bias in the global scale is between the West and the third-world, the unfairness here similarly goes hand-in-hand with the issue of race representation in the newsroom. Before November, it seemed as if no one was paying attention to what’s happening in North Dakota. When asked why there is so little coverage of the event, David Beard pointed out that it might be because “there is a general rush, a post election focus after Trump’s victory,” and the fact that the bigger outlets were slow to get to the story.”
“For the first part of the story, it didn’t get the kind of attention just because news organizations were devoting so much resources to the election that they just let this one pass, which they shouldn’t have,” Mark Trahant of the Trahant Reports said. He also believed that the reason stories concerning minorities didn’t get as much coverage is because of their fewer representation in newsrooms, citing the salmon dispute in the Northwest as another story that was ignored by the mainstream media. “American Indians are just a small percentage of the population,” he added.
The American Society of News Editors 2016 diversity survey stated that Native Americans make up an estimated .39 percent of journalists in U.S. newsrooms, while White make up more than 83 percent of all newsroom staff members. Tommy Cummings, a digital producer of the Dallas Morning News told Poynter, “There’s not a lot a mainstream media [in Standing Rock], and I know why. The industry’s lost half its staff and to cover something that impacts one percent or less is just not a sexy enough issue to cover.”
While the movement began in April, media coverage started recently, when police threw water cannons at unarmed water protectors a few weeks ago, leaving dozens of people with hypothermia. However, the event on Nov. 21 is not the first time the press started to garner attention towards the peaceful demonstration. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was one of the first journalists covering the event. She went to Standing Rock to cover the story before most mainstream media, showing how police used dogs to attack water protectors. On Sept. 8, an arrest warrant for Goodman was issued, citing riot as the reason. Her charges were dropped in October.
Nevertheless, the scarce coverage is still visible in mainstream media, print and online. Steve Wallick, editor of the Bismarck Tribune informed Montana Journalism Review, “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.” Trahant, however, suggested that although it is a factor, “It was more of a choice of resources.” He continued, “Sure it was isolated, but there are other stories that are isolated that do get attention.”
“The best coverage of the story has either been social media or newspapers,” Trahant said, while mentioning television as the medium where the story is most narrowly covered. He also added that magazine could’ve done better. On television, CNN’s Newsroom described the situation as “violent clashes,” a term people viewed as another example of media sensationalism. Moreover, citing the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Seattle Times, Trahant said, “Newspapers have actually done some really good work, it’s just not been a part of the national narrative for a couple of reasons.” The New York Times website showed more than 1,400 results for “President-elect Trump” in November alone. Meanwhile, “North Dakota Pipeline” got less than a hundred for the same month. In November, the publication only featured the story as front-page news once on Nov. 22, although they have featured it on the front page in previous months. On the Washington Post, the pipeline is mentioned in about 133 articles for the past two months, and 46 in the Wall Street Journal. Of course, news websites are the easiest way to compare media coverage. How would we analyze public awareness between the two topics?
According to Keyhole, a hashtag tracker for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, there are seven hundred posts using the hashtag #StandWithStandingRock on Twitter. With 197 links posted on the social media website, the conversation reached over two million accounts. Nevertheless, topics such as the affordable care act, or Obama Care, reached 12 million, and Representative Tom Price an even bigger 16 million after President-elect Trump reportedly chose him as Health Secretary. Like any other news stories, most of the posts are retweets from media accounts on Twitter. Furthermore, over four hundred supporters have signed the petition in Change.org.
As journalists, we have a responsibility to inform the public about everything, not just events that concern the majority of the public or those that deemed to be more profitable. As gatekeepers and sense-maker, our job is to place stories within a broader context in a way that turns information into knowledge.
The ethical principle that comes to play here is objectivity. Deontology teaches a journalist the duty to cover as much truth with no exception, while maintaining objectivity as one of the most important ethical principle. According to teleology, you have to think about the consequences of your action. In this case, a journalist’s duty to provide coverage may change the outcome or at least get more people informed and involved. Furthermore, the stakeholders presented in the case are the water protectors and Native Americans, the United States government, readers and journalists themselves.
Journalism is a powerful tool that can give people a voice to a broader audience, hence the need of equal representation of race in media coverage. One of the reasons that contributed to their recent victory is most likely because of public awareness from all over the country. Although Beard, as aforementioned, recognized that the bigger media outlets took time to caught on to the story, “there were a number of good accounts leading up to the showdown that led to the change this weekend where the Army Corps of Engineers gave up for now.” This coalition includes veterans and public figures, such as actors Mark Ruffalo and Patricia Arquette, made more famous by social media presence attracted the awareness it needs to win the fight for water.
Moreover, most articles published online referred to the supporters as “protestors” rather than “water protectors.” The usage of the word “protestor” is itself presents an ethical dilemma for journalists. On one side, Native Americans and those who stood up to the pipeline can be portrayed as a group who are protesting the project, therefore referring to them as “protestors” is understandable. However, as the Native American leaders have asked everyone to call them as “water protectors,” it presents an ethical dilemma of being respectful to the wishes of the subjects of the story and also not wanting to mislead the readers. This is because for some, “protestors” seemed to suggest a group of people who are causing a scene and acting violently, while the protectors in North Dakota are reportedly being peaceful. The language usage also paralleled the recent ethical problem of “white nationalists” wanting the media to refer to them as “alt-rights.”
“I wouldn’t label them,” Beard said. He added, “I don’t want to call [white nationalists] alt-right in the first paragraph just because they want to be called alt-right. I think I need to explain to all readers what it is first.” Trahant credited Los Angeles Times for handling the language problem brilliantly in covering the Standing Rock protests, as well as stating that he would make it clear that the supporters wanted to be called “water protectors,” however he would refer to them as “protestors” too.