Giving the pipeline protest story its due

Singing and praying at Cannonball River, North Dakota. Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

A note from a listener passed my way this week asking MPR to provide on-site coverage of the Standing Rock protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline by sending a reporter there, arguing we didn’t have one.

We did. MPR News reporter Doualy Xaykaothao spent Thanksgiving in the winter conditions and remains on scene. Two other reporters have joined her, one more will spell Doualy next week, and two reporters are working the issues full time from the newsroom and MPR bureaus. That ain’t nothing.

It’s true that stories take awhile to get the attention they deserve, and in the era of social networks, that fact looks like a deliberate attempt to minimize a story. It’s not.

NPR is getting the same sort of feedback, judging by this afternoon’s weekly column by NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, who also says assertions that the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon got more attention than Standing Rock are wrong.

NPR did 65 stories over five months, including the recently-concluded trial in Oregon. Coverage of what’s happening in North Dakota will easily surpass that, she says.

But she also points out another challenge to traditional media in the era of Facebook Live.

Those who are particularly interested in it can tap into the frequent live streams on Facebook, no media filter needed (although the Facebook feeds are most certainly filtered, coming from the protesters’ point of view). That may magnify their impression that the story is not being given sufficient attention.

There’s another component: the story isn’t changing much. That’s the nature of standoffs.

The story is not an easy one to cover, given the remoteness of the site. NPR was not there as early as it could have been, but once it began paying attention, NPR devoted more time and resources than many other major news outlets.

That may be why some listeners are writing now to say the story has been underplayed. The importance of what is taking place would seem to warrant a story almost every day and yet, given the incremental nature of the developments, it’s not clear to me what those stories would report, without sounding repetitive.

Jensen says underplaying the use of force by law enforcement has been a mistake.

“I do think the Standing Rock story is critically important,” she writes. “I hope and expect it will continue to stay on the story. Just this afternoon, All Things Considered posted a call-out on Facebook asking what questions NPR’s listeners and readers want answered, with a promise to look into them. The numerous replies so far show that there is indeed a deep desire for more in-depth information on the story.”

Credit where it’s due dept: That’s an idea that originated with MPR News Editor Sara Porter and is a great example of using more innovative ways to more quickly connect the news audience with the story. Expect to see and hear more of it.