Mainstream Media Criticized For Being 'Fairly Silent' On Standing Rock Protest

Sep 8, 2016


Tristan Ahtone is the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism Diversity Fellow in Residence.
Credit Reynolds School of Journalism

Minorities account for nearly 40 percent of the population in the U.S., but journalists of color make up only a small fraction of major newsrooms. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray sits down with Tristan Ahtone, University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism Diversity Fellow in Residence, to talk about why diverse perspectives matter in reporting.


Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and received his training at the Columbia School of Journalism. He serves as a board member of the Native American Journalists Association.   


In recent news, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe—along with hundreds of Native Americans from across the country are gathering in solidarity—to protest the construction of a crude oil pipeline by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners in North Dakota. Ahtone gives his perspective on the recent media coverage of this issue.




Q.  A typical major newsroom in the U.S. tends to have a predominantly white, male editorial staff. In radio and print, there are less than one in seven journalists of color. In TV news, it’s about one in five. Why is more diversity in a newsroom important?


A. More voices make a newsroom more viable. More points of views, more people who have access to communities that journalists don’t normally have, it really helps create a better tableau of American society. The point of journalism is to tell stories and to provide information to the public, so they can make informed decisions. If you’re leaving out whole blocks of America, you don’t have all the information. You’ll only have a very myopic sort of look at the country and the issues that are happening. 


Q. Let’s talk about one of the biggest news stories taking place right now. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is protesting an oil pipeline in North Dakota saying that it desecrates sacred land and could contaminate the water there. A local leader from the Native American community in Reno, Monty Williams, has this to say about the protest.


“It’s been our land forever. They just move us to wherever they move us and then they try to take things over, but then they find our ancestral bones, or burial grounds. Everything that is sacred to us, should be sacred to the world: the water and the air, and all that stuff. It seems like no respect for anything really.”


This statement is an example that the standoff in North Dakota also has a deeper history behind it. Since you’re a Native American reporter, do you think there is a right or wrong way to report this story?


A. As a reporter, your first obligation in the truth. A lot of times that means doing the research that’s required to get there. There’s a lot of context that goes into this story. There’s a lot of action going on up there right now that reporters should be aware of—not only what’s happening now—but how that situation came about. It’s a reporter’s job to go up there and really unpack all of that, inform the public to make a decision and to take a side on some level.


Q. And there’s been some criticisms that there hasn’t been enough national mainstream media coverage of what’s going on there. What are your thoughts about that?


A. I have no idea why there isn’t more mainstream coverage. This is a really massive event right now, but mainstream media has been fairly silent on it. The New York Times has been out there, NPR has done some stuff, and there have been other reporters that have gone out there. But this is a sustained action that seems to be happening up there and would seem to be up the alley of any news organization to go out and cover this event. Why that’s not happening? I couldn’t tell you. It boggles my mind because it’s such a huge story.


Q. Could you place this story into proper context as to why it's particularly important?


A. We’ve seen a lot of pipeline protests in the U.S., but with this particular protest right now, you’re seeing people traveling from all over the U.S.  to get there to support protestors and activities to stop this pipeline. In some ways it’s really reminiscent of the 1970s when the American Indian movement was very active and had these mass protests [against] things that were going on. It’s interesting because so many people are involved right now and so many people are traveling from so far to be there. Who knows how long it will continue on, but we haven’t seen this in a long time. That’s what makes this so different.