Reader Glenn Oshiro asked this critical question last week in response to my column about shrinking journalistic access: Why, he wondered, “did it take months for the mainstream media including (Civil Beat) to cover Standing Rock?”
Embedded in that inquiry, I think, is the fundamental disconnect between what readers want from their journalism and what they understand and appreciate about the costs, pragmatics and complexities of producing such primary-source work.
The short answer to Oshiro’s question is that the Standing Rock Sioux tribal grounds, where Dakota Access Pipeline protests became galvanized, is difficult for most journalists to reach (no direct flights), on sovereign Native American territory, involving people of an unfamiliar culture, disconnected from mainstream media.
They are engaged in a viciously contested fight, as part of the development of a much larger and more complicated multi-state agreement, with about $4 billion at stake, heavily backed by a U.S. Fortune 500 oil and gas company and the societal powers it wields. Those factors make the story both alluring and relatively inaccessible.
From a media-ecology perspective, though, this difficult-to-report story also was competing for attention and resources against every other story in America this fall, including the carnival act of a presidential election. So with most media channels taking the most-efficient (most-profitable) route, we drowned in easy-to-regurgitate-and-repackage Donald Trump sound bites.
The simple answer is for audiences to pay more attention to the good work that journalists do and encourage more of it.
No professional reporters were on the scene this winter when Morton County, North Dakota authorities chose to spray water on protesters in sub-freezing temperatures at Standing Rock and then, apparently, lied about it and other abusive “crowd control” tactics.
How can we disrupt such a media dynamic, which threatens the core Fourth Estate role in American democracy? The simple answer is for audiences to pay more attention to the good work that journalists do and encourage more of it by reading it, listening to it, viewing it and becoming engaged in it, including sharing it. Then, as Oshiro essentially requests, journalists will be there, because that is where their audiences demand that they be.
Journalism only exists because of audience interests. In a media ecosystem driven by analytics and response, when you click on and comment on journalistic work, you give it power. When you don’t, that power vaporizes.
So choose wisely. Support what you want to read, see and hear. If you want more in-depth coverage about Standing Rock and similar issues, through the perspective of local journalists, then you really should engage as much as possible with high-quality efforts along those lines and encourage those in any way you can.
This necessitates a certain level of media literacy and a commitment to supporting the journalistic ideology. For example, when Hawaii News Now – abusers of the “exclusive” label – inexplicably added a dateline to its from-a-distance weather story about Standing Rock, to give the impression that HNN journalists were there when they really weren’t, readers should dismiss such unethical posturing and change the channel. If HNN’s audience shrugs that kind of questionable behavior off and accepts it as good enough, then expect more of the cheap stuff.
Civil Beat actually sent two journalists – reporter Nick Grube and photographer Cory Lum – on the laborious trek to North Dakota earlier this month. That included multiple flights as well as a long drive in the snow just to reach the location (an adventure they chronicled via Facebook Live). Their weeklong series of stories showed what Standing Rock was like for people viewing it from a Hawaii perspective, focused upon the state’s representatives at the site and the concurrent visit by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
I suspect if Civil Beat wouldn’t have been there, Gabbard’s gaffe about Mauna Kea might never have been reported widely (if at all), and the voices of Hawaii’s people in that place would have remained marginalized and ignored in mass-media markets.
Grube and Lum also fortuitously covered the federal government’s intervention in the issue, shutting down the pipeline construction (at least for now).
They weren’t really lucky, though. They made their luck by being there. If you have been paying attention to Civil Beat’s website this month, you might have noticed a variety of other such inspired journalistic initiatives.
Jessica Terrell, for example, just wrapped up the first season of the podcast “Offshore,” a collaboration between Civil Beat and PRX. As a fan of broadcast-industry leaders, such as “Radiolab,” and award-winning podcasts such as “Serial,” I was impressed with both the production quality and the storytelling techniques employed by Terrell in this 10-part series, which started in October and continued weekly until mid-December, with about five hours of original content in total.
I originally intended to write most of this column about “Offshore,” but the more I listened to it – and I listened to every episode, sometimes twice – the more I just wanted people to listen to it for themselves.
This is the kind of journalism our community can produce. We should savor that sort of achievement. The topic (the 2011 killing of Kollin Elderts in Waikiki) isn’t new, and it has been addressed by other media sources in the state, as well as by numerous scholars. The possible upcoming trial (potentially the third time the defendant, Christopher Deedy, has faced charges) doesn’t appear to offer any surprises.
Yet Terrell interjects her personality and interest into the story, as a haole newcomer, and enthusiastically demonstrates how she can see it all fresh again. She keeps her perspective at the forefront of the series but also continually reaches toward the past and into broader contexts to connect the deadly three-minute fight to larger societal issues in Hawaii and beyond.
Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider, reporting about military expansionism throughout the region, recently published a similarly wide-ranging project titled “Pacific Outpost.” This five-part series addressed how small island communities – such as Saipan, Tinian and Guam – have responded to U.S. military overtures, past and present, and dealt with the dangerous detritus of war. Hofschneider island-hopped around the Pacific to directly investigate many concerns about threats to the environment, culture and safety of the local people.
Also announced by Civil Beat this month was the hire of the only full-time Hawaii journalist right now stationed in Washington, Kristin Downey. She will cover the federal government, under the new Trump administration, from the center of the action.
These highlights indicate Civil Beat thinks it’s important for journalists to be there, wherever that story might be taking place, and to take the time to do the story right. Will audiences respond to those efforts? Will other media organizations in the state make similar investments to raise production quality and first-person presence?
What do you want from your local news? Invariably, you – the audience – will get to decide if these enterprising efforts are worth it.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.