November 28, 2016

With the election behind us, journalists are turning their attention to stories that took a back burner ahead of Nov. 8. One of them is a case study in the need for awareness, cultivating diverse sources and understanding the local ramifications of national news: the ongoing protest at Standing Rock Reservation.

Suddenly, the intersection of big energy, commerce, and sovereignty have drawn our attention to an ethnic and cultural group often erased in discussions about diversity.

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.

Energy and infrastructure are but two issues at the heart of the #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) controversy. 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. 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.

The list could — and does — go on. The National Transportation Safety Board has made 123 reports of pipeline incidents available on the web. Most are fairly recent, but some date back as far as the 1960s.

Considering that there are 2.5 million miles of energy pipelines crisscrossing the United States, and few states require that details about their construction, maintenance and safety be reported to the public, anyone who flicked on a light switch today has a stake in what’s happening at Standing Rock.

The disconnect between the protests and more widespread concern may have something to do with 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. 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.

Tommy Cummings, a digital producer at at the Dallas Morning News, is familiar with the paradoxical fixation-on-yet erasure-of Native peoples in the news. He is Native American, one of estimated .39 percent of American Indian journalists currently working in U.S. newsrooms, per the American Society of News Editor’s 2016 diversity survey.

“But I don’t think anybody would actually think I was Native American, because I don’t dress the part,’” Cummings said.

“I don’t have a ponytail and wear turquoise or speak in a halted voice that a lot of people expect, he said. I think they’re kind of thrown that I speak with a southern accent. I don’t fit what they think an Indian is.”

The problem with diversity as a concept solely based on representation — what many dismiss as “identity politics” — is well-illustrated by the Native American experience. The quantification leads to oversimplification, and with such small numbers, issues that impact Native communities get downplayed as issues that only pertain to a sliver of the country.

Cummings said it more succinctly: People who make up “less than one percent of the population don’t get a lot of coverage until something big comes up.”

For his part, Cummings is relying on Twitter for an inside look at Standing Rock.

“I know what the basic issues are, but I’m very intrigued with what’s going on with the boots-on-the-ground experience. I go to the #NoDAPL on Twitter and see a very unvarnished version,” he said.

“There’s not a lot a mainstream media there, 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,” Cummings added.

But it’s serious enough to warrant more in-depth coverage.

What’s happening now at Standing Rock is a prelude to the environmental issues of pipeline integrity, growth and development that become breaking news when the vessels leak, are damaged, or simply corrode, polluting local elements and posing an immediate, observable threat.

This crisis, like the people at its center, isn’t limited to a single place. Neither it nor the experiences of Native Americans should be reported on as isolated and disconnected from urbanized life.

“One of the first things people don’t know, or that they often forget, is that the majority of native people today live in urban areas,” said Kyle Mays, a post-doctoral research fellow in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mays’ Saginaw Chippewa family, for instance, is made up of Black Detroiters. They’ve likely been equally impacted by that city’s economic struggles and revitalization — another angle in the ongoing story about the evolution of the middle class.

“While one should obviously go to reservations, you don’t have to go to a reservation to find Native stories. There are Native centers in Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix. All these places have one or more Native centers, there are Native populations there. You just assume that it’s native therefore, on a reservation.

“Look at native people to fit in a modern context,” he said.

The Department of the Interior — the federal body responsible for addressing water-access issues like the one being confronted at Standing Rock — lists 565 federally recognized tribes; its likely that one or more are represented in any given newsroom’s coverage area. Cummings suggested that reporters make contact with existing representatives of the tribes and learn more about current needs, concerns — and their outlet’s history with with local Native groups to provide sound, thorough coverage.

Both parties will benefit “if media groups can make outreaches to Native Americans to activists and tribes and bring them in and let them know that we’re trying,” he said.

“[People need] a general education that Native issues do exist, and that Native people don’t exist only in the past,” Mays said. “There’s an assumption that Native people have been pushed onto poor reservations far, far away.”

They’re not. As both Cummings and Mays can attest, many are working alongside people with Native American lineage and yet totally unaware. And in missing the perspective of Native peoples, we are certainly missing opportunities to connect these communities’ issues as part of our general public concerns.

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Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and a monthly columnist for Poynter. You…
Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D.

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