The red press badges stick out of layers of coats and scarves, identifying the people with notepads and cameras as journalists long before they speak. The ensemble builds a wall journalists aren’t necessarily able to climb over: many people at Oceti Sakowin camp just don’t want to talk to the media.
Upon entering Oceti Sakowin camp, and directly before hitting flag road, a hard right for 100 yards leads to “Facebook Hill.” Perched atop the hill sits the press tent, a broken solar panel and a wind turbine; inside the tent sits Michael Pinuelas and other media volunteers who hand out press passes to certified, on-assignment journalists.
Pinuelas, a 23-year-old from Seattle, Washington, is a volunteer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Pinuelas worked in the media tent and certified journalists at Oceti Sakowin for more than a month.
Rules for allowing journalists in became more intense after the Oct. 27 raid on the treaty camp, Pinuelas said. After the raid, which received widespread attention, there was a large influx of reporters: hundreds came in the next week who wanted to show the more human side of Standing Rock and not just the violence. However, the rapid increase in journalists had a negative effect.
“A lot of people were being treated like exhibits and a lot of people were taking photos in a very extractive way,” Pinuelas said. “And the council of elders that does a lot of the decision making around here decided that we couldn’t do any more freelance, we couldn’t do any independent. There were too many blogs, too many Facebook feeds — and what they saw online were massive repositories of photos that told that (human) story, people just weren’t looking at them.”
Pinuelas credited the democratization and fragmentation of media as part of the problem: everyone wanted in on the action, everyone wanted their own reporter at the camp. And this led to hundreds of reporters taking hundreds of photos of anyone who looked “native.”
“A lot of folks here feel like exhibits — especially if they’ve been here three, four, five months. They’ve gotten their picture taken many times a day, especially if they have darker skin,” Pinuelas said. “Journalists are here to get the pictures that they would term emblematic. They want the pictures that will define this struggle.”
In a camp of thousands of people, that’s hard to do and can feel extractive, Pinuelas said. People who are interviewed don’t see generation of concern from the stories, have their words twisted or are otherwise dissatisfied with the way the story is told.
Cannon Ball local Kenyon Uses Arrow, 16, sees the incongruence in reporting.
“Some reporters come here and they record our sides of the story but then when you look at it on TV or even on Facebook they shift it up and they make it sound like we’re just here just to cause trouble,” Uses Arrow said.
He thinks journalists have had an “obviously negative effect” overall, but was willing to talk — “I wanted to get my word out and I wanted to show the people that even us younger kids have a voice,” Uses Arrow said. “It’s not just the adults.”
Elan Hedges, 16, and Emory Boll, 16, are high school juniors at a school in Connecticut. Instead of finals week, the students are assigned to do projects; Hedges and Boll decided to travel to Standing Rock and do a project for their school newspaper.
“As soon as we saw what was going on with the whole DAPL issue, we immediately decided that we wanted to come out and do what we could,” Hedges said.
Kit Karzen is a photojournalist who reported at Oceti Sakowin camp. Hedges, Boll and Karzen all touched on the bias they feel during their reporting.
“Oh, 100 percent. Going into most conflicts I try to be as nonpartisan as I can,” Karzen said, when asked if he’s biased. “Personally I try to not go and explicitly state my feelings in the messaging or commentary. What I find, is the deeper to the shit that I can get, the truer the story is and that’s all I need. Because I don’t have to lie about anything that’s going on here.”