A Fight for Attention

This week, the Standing Rock Water Protecters scored in the Water vs. Oil battle. But what had to be endured to get here and how did – especially mainstream – media react to this David versus Goliath like fight?

Well, they often simply did not. Which can be the worst misrepresentation a protest can get. When media acts as a gatekeeper (Rucht et al., 2004) – closing the door to the public in front of certain news – it takes away legitimization of the protesters cause and signals them that their message is not worth the coverage, not worth spreading. But what cause could be more valuable than the access to clean drinking water, the very essence of life?

This crucial struggle has been the harsh reality for the protesters in Standing Rock since April 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters claimed an end to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath the Missouri river (the main supply of their drinking water) and the destruction of their sacred land. But the protests were hardly mentioned by mass media outlets until a couple of weeks ago, leaving the wide public in the dark of what happened between the Native American tribe and the powerful corporate forces. In the long fight, peaceful protests were met with harsh police brutality, amongst other atrocities, in the form of water hosing in wintery temperatures.

On December 4th, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will not grant the permit for the Dakota Access pipeline to drill under the Missouri river, handing a major win to the activists.

So, what has happened?

Various reactions of campaigners to media misrepresentations are identified by Sigrid Bahringhorst in his Quadruple A approach (Rucht et al., 2004). Amongst abstention, attack and adaptation of mass media we find the search for alternatives. In this case, the alternatives came in the form of independent, online news outlets. In search for the truth, journalists travelled to the site, reporting on the harsh and unfair police brutality and revealed the framing of protesters. Through this, awareness got out there forming a large support front on social media platforms. Pressure was applied through the outside track, by the public, and the topic was finally picked up by mass media outlets.

During this whole process, the protecters have made use of professional communication strategies. They have adapted their message according to news values (Rucht et al., 2004): Online they circulated personalised videos, messages to authorities and politicians.

They used storytelling and alteration of language (naming themselves protecters instead of protesters) to return the focus on their core message (O’Brien, 2015): freedom. Freedom from injustice, freedom of ownership and the freedom that comes with access to clean drinking water.

If the incoming republican administration and the energy company will respect the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers, remains to be seen – hopefully on a broad spectrum of news outlets.



Loader, B.D., Nixon, P.G., Rucht, D. and Van de Donk, W. (2004) Cyberprotest: New media, citizens and social movements, eds. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 29-56.

O’Brien, M. (2015). Movement for Change. Communication Director, 42-45.


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