The video captured national attention. A group of Water Protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe came to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Among their concerns, Protectors worried that the pipeline would contaminate their water supply. Footage shows bulldozers clearing an area the Tribe had identified as sacred land, including ancestral burial grounds. The situation escalated as Water Protectors confronted construction workers. The latter had mace and dogs which they used against the Protectors.
Seemingly overnight the news media descended on this rural corner of America to cover the Standing Rock Sioux’s struggle. UW Tacoma Senior Lecturer Ellen Moore watched the video. This was September of 2016 and in just a few short weeks Moore would begin teaching a graduate-level course on culture and public problems. “The problem we were going to look at was the environment,” she said.
Moore played the video in her class.“Students decided right then and there that they wanted to do their final research project about the pipeline and the NODAPL movement,” said Moore. These same students ended up presenting their work at an academic conference in the United Kingdom with Moore the following year.
The issue resonated with Moore. She’d planned to travel to North Dakota after autumn quarter ended to join the resistance formed by the Water Protectors. In December 2016, then President Barack Obama halted the pipeline’s construction. President Trump reversed this action and the 1,100 mile long pipeline was completed in 2017.
Moore focused her energy toward writing a book about how the media covered the protests and the pipeline. Moore’s early vision for the work only included analysis of different media outlets and their coverage. “For some reason, I don’t know why, but I had this blind spot and a well-meaning colleague asked me if I’d contacted the Tribe, which I hadn’t,” said Moore.
After discussing her research protocol with Dr. Danica Sterud Miller, assistant professor in American Indian Studies at UW Tacoma, Moore reached out to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “I’m completely grateful to the Tribe because they turned the book from what would have been a dry, distanced analysis of a media system into a critique of the culture and of society itself,” she said.
The resulting book, Journalism, Politics and the Dakota Access Pipeline: Standing Rock and the Framing of Injustice, is split into two main parts. One included Moore’s analysis of different media outlets, the other focused on the Tribe’s perspective. As part of her research protocol, “we created understanding through a set of ground rules,” said Moore. “One was they knew they were not my subjects or my participants, they were collaborators on this research. Second, they knew I didn’t speak for them, rather I was representing their words and perspectives. Third, and most important, we agreed that everything I wrote would be sent to them before publication and if they objected to anything then it would be removed from the book.”
In Moore’s words, tribal members have “the news media dialed in.” “They’re very aware that the news media is conflict driven,” she said. Case in point, national news outlets largely refrained from covering tribal resistance to the pipeline until after the video from Democracy Now! went viral. “They talked about how even local media wouldn’t turn out for a peaceful march but would be on the scene at the first hint of trouble,” said Moore.
Tribal members ultimately relied on social media. “They really saw platforms like Facebook and Twitter as providing a way to get the word out ‘unfiltered,’” said Moore. “They felt that legacy media often put a spin on their message that wasn’t accurate.”
The second part of the book is framing analysis where Moore looks at how The New York Times, The Bismarck Tribune, Calgary Herald, the Globe and Mail, and Indian Country Media Network reported on the story. “The bigger national newspapers used an ‘environmental justice’ frame that said the pipeline wasn’t worth the risk to the Tribe,” said Moore. Conversely, “local papers in heavy oil-producing regions used ‘law and order’ and ‘economic’ frames to portray the Protectors as violent law breakers whose needs were not as important as economic growth in North Dakota.” What is clear, Moore added, is that although the pipeline was ultimately completed, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters created a powerful movement that continues to resonate today.
Moore will discuss her book in depth during the Grit City Think & Drink at the Swiss on Tuesday, August 13 from 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org