Stories are at the heart of everything senior Skylar Rispens does. And, she does it all.
Photo. Web editing and design. Writing. Social media.
You name it, she does it well.
Skylar says according to her parents, she’s been passionate about telling stories even before she could talk.
She graduated from Helena High School and set out to study journalism at UM. She says she shaped her course work to dig into photography and writing. But, she’s also been the multimedia producer for the Montana Native News Project and during her trip to Korea this last spring with Montana Journalism Abroad, she was the web content editor as well as a photographer.
This fall, she’s the photo editor of the new iteration of the Montana Journalism Review project.
Skylar writes, “With the guidance of the professors and variety of class options at the School of Journalism I have gained unparalleled reporting experience that has shaped me into a confident and eager reporter.”
This summer, she spent 10 weeks as an intern in Butte, reporting for the Montana Standard. There, she covered stories like the annual Montana Folk Festival to following an infrastructure bond proposal from committee to school board approval.
Her favorite assignment at the Standard was a world-class mountain bike race. She not only reported on the race, but documented it with incredible photo work too.
Following a five-day trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a team of journalism students and a professor have been at the center of a lot of media attention, a sign that coverage of the intertribal stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline is both sorely lacking but also highly sought after.
During Labor Day weekend, Associate Professor Jason Begay and three students—grad students Matt Roberts and Lailani Upham, and undergrad senior Olivia Vanni—drove to the North Dakota campsite where an estimated 250 tribes have gathered to stand against a massive oil pipeline project.
“The Journalism School faculty thought it made sense that we have a student presence at Standing Rock, since we consider ourselves to be leaders in Native American journalism,” said Begay, who teaches the Native News reporting teams to the Montana’s seven reservations every spring. “But I don’t think we anticipated the kid of attention we eventually found.”
The students were reporting for the Montana Journalism Review (MJR) and were looking to research how the media was covering the Standing Rock camp. Standing Rock Sioux tribal members have been camping at the site since May, as they challenge the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would pump nearly 1,200 barrels of oil from the Eastern North Dakota to Illinois.
Although the pipeline wouldn’t go into tribal lands, it would cross the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation, including through an area sacred to the tribe.
The campsite has been billed as a non-violent demonstration by participants, but during the MJR reporting trip, violence rocked the area as tribal supporters and pipeline employees and security guards clashed over the construction site.
“It wasn’t overt, but we could sense a shift in tone at the camp after that event,” Begay said. “Everyone was just a little more cautious about who to talk to and why so many media reps had finally showed up.”
Media attention increased exponentially for both the campsite and the reporting team. Before the team left North Dakota, they were interviewed for stories by both a Missoula TV and radio station. Begay was invited to write a story for the Butte Standard. Other programs that featured interviews and photos from the team include Public Radio International, Native America Calling and the Navajo Times.
Begay was also invited to talk about the trip on two panels at the Excellence in Journalism conference in New Orleans in mid-September.
“News media is really starved for any kind of on-the-ground coverage of the Standing Rock camp,” Begay said. “Most of the media present at the site have been either local to the Bismarck area or the big outlets. Smaller, regional news companies really seem interested, but lack the resources to send their own people.”
The Montana Journalism Review team is posting content from the trip on its Medium page and is expected to feature a longer story and media analysis
of the trip in its 2016 edition, due out later this year.
After weeks of planning and preparation, UM journalism students in the class Native News are spending spring break reporting on their stories. The students work in teams of two that pair photojournalists with print reporters to create a complete multimedia story.
With the upcoming presidential election in November, Native News professors Jeremy Lurgio and Jason Begay decided this year’s project should focus on politics. “The President has a lot of influence over Indian country,” Begay said.
Yet Begay said the theme is not just about seeing how people on reservations vote. He posed the question, “What do they consider when thinking about politics?”
“Voting on reservations tends to be less bipartisan, especially when it comes to internal politics,” Lurgio said.
However, the reporting teams have chosen stories that dig into the specific political issues that impact their designated reservations, instead of covering the national influence. The students reporting on the Crow Reservation recently followed tribal leader Darrin Old Coyote to the 2016 Montana Energy Convention in Billings to hear him speak about how coal affected jobs on his reservation.
On Fort Belknap, Sophie Tsairis and Lenny Peppers are investigating access to voting and the satellite voting offices on the reservation. Tsairis has been posting reporting updates from Fort Belknap on Instagram.
On the Blackfeet Reservation, Courtney Gerard and Peter Friesen are digging into constitution reform. However, their trip also aligns with the arrival of 88 bison from Elk Island in Canada returning to the reservation, as part of a cultural and ecological relocation effort. To see live updates from the Blackfeet, follow Gerard’s posts on Instagram.
When the students return from the reservations, the pairs will start synthesizing their individual stories into a collaborative, multimedia piece. The final projects from each team will appear on the Native News website in May and circulate the state in the annual print edition.
To catch the latest updates from the Native News reporting teams, follow their accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.