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Reporters remember dramatic pipeline protests on UND panel

Reporters who covered the Dakota Access Pipeline protests spoke at a panel on UND campus Thursday, providing some insight -- and, at times, a defense -- of their work with one of the biggest stories of 2017.

Journalists from around the U.S. gathered at UND on Thursday to discuss coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. From left: Sandy Tolan, who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times, Jason Begay, a member of the University of Montana’s faculty who co-teaches its Native News Project, and Renee Jean of the Williston Herald. (Grand Forks Herald photo/Sam Easter)
Journalists from around the U.S. gathered at UND on Thursday to discuss coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. From left: Sandy Tolan, who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times, Jason Begay, a member of the University of Montana’s faculty who co-teaches its Native News Project, and Renee Jean of the Williston Herald. (Grand Forks Herald photo/Sam Easter)
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Reporters who covered the Dakota Access Pipeline protests spoke at a panel on UND campus Thursday, providing some insight - and, at times, a defense - of their work with one of the biggest stories of 2017.

The far-ranging conversation was a chance to recall some of the drama of the protests as well as a moment to dwell on how journalists approach their craft. Panelists included Sandy Tolan, who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times, Renee Jean of the Williston Herald and Jason Begay, a member of the University of Montana's faculty who co-teaches its Native News Project. The three discussed their experiences and at times took pointed questions and comments.

Tolan told the story of losing his keys to his rental car on one of the most dramatic days of the protests, which left the vehicle swallowed by advancing police lines and in one of the most iconic images of the event. But he also discussed coverage, which he believe was sometimes almost too balanced, so to speak - perhaps creating a false moral equivalence between different sides of the issue. He referred to the protest site as the "Selma of the North," a reference to the famous, violent clash during the civil rights movement in Alabama.

"A lot of what drew me in was this notion of people standing up for something they believed in," he said. "The government of North Dakota - their response indicated how badly they wanted this pipeline to go through."

Jean discussed her work in terms of strict objectivity, presenting facts for readers to parse on their own terms. She said that oftentimes "both sides would be unhappy" with her coverage of the events. Begay added that he sought coverage that didn't fall into rote, predictable coverage of Native American issues, and was fascinated by protest's momentum before strong mainstream media coverage.

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Some attendees pressed the panel with sharp comments on their own experiences. Jodi Gillette, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, said she spoke with members of the press to convince them that infiltrators were entering the protest camp to act recklessly and discredit protesters, but that her word - and her evidence - didn't seem to carry as much weight as law enforcement's. Another attendee accused the media of exploiting protesters and at times getting the story wrong.

Tolan responded to some of their comments by defending his own work, which he said stands as accurate and fair on its own merits. Jean briefly began to describe how she might hesitate to print a negative story about law enforcement if she was not certain of its veracity.

The panel was part of a longer symposium dedicated to the Standing Rock protests, a daylong event organized by Mark Trahant, a Native American journalist who holds an endowed professorship in UND's communication's department. The symposium made up a day of the annual Time Out Week ahead of the annual campus wacipi.

Both Trahant and his events discussing the protests made headlines this October, when Trahant accused the university of rejecting proposals in order to preserve favor and funding from the state Legislature, a claim UND President Mark Kennedy denied.

On Thursday, he said he felt relief at launching the day's events and excitement at watching them unfold.

"I just think it's an important conversation, and it always struck me as amazing that it's one that universities around the country would have, but not in North Dakota," he said on Thursday. "And I thought it was really important to have one here."

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