Glawe Column: Drones Issue Doesn't Get Coverage It Deserves From ND Media

Williston once again was given the Wild West treatment last week. This time with an evangelical twist courtesy of a local pastor and Charlie LeDuff, author of the longest obituary in American literature.

If I were from North Dakota this is where the indignance would begin, but I’m not and it won’t. While LeDuff fell into the trap many writers and reporters have since the oil boom began (full discosure: myself included), he also provided us with a new character: The Preacher. That’s in addition to dream-seeking oilman, the exasperated conservationist, the had-it-up-to-here local, the beyond-help wino and the overworked cop.

I can’t speak for the others, but in LeDuff’s experience and my own, that last character is borne not of writerly imaginations, but real life. In late November, while reporting on my own version of the Williston story, I came across Cory Collings, a detective with the Williston Police Department. Either he knew to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear, or he was speaking from the heart when he told me that the Wild West is a more-than-apt metaphor for Williston.

But I’m not from the state, and so perhaps I’m looking at things from a different angle. A friend in the media recently told me something I’ve suspected since before I moved here: That folks are sick of hearing the story of the boom told in negative terms, and that it’s not that effective because North Dakotans already know what the problems are. Outsiders, with their tales of woe and stories of American dreams turning into North Dakota nightmares, aren’t telling the absolute truth, my friend said. To have it, you need the media within the state to put things into context.

Such logic works just as well in reverse.

While the oil boom has brought media outsiders here in droves, helping to even out the reporting scales, those whose interest lie with the success of drone technology threaten to have a watchdog-free walk-through on their path to prosperity. Some contend that path could also lead to the destruction of civil liberties.

Rob Port has worked to bring this issue to focus, as have the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, albeit on a more national scale. (The EFF has worked tirelessly to file Freedom of Information Act Requests on drone-related issues. Here, for instance, is a Border Patrol drone flight log from 2010, secured via a FOIA request. It’s one of hundreds of requests filed by the EFF since 2003 with more than a dozen government agencies on issues from biometrics to transparency.)

But the average news consumer does not scour the EFF and ACLU websites each day looking for stories. Providing that information — both of the negative and positive variety — falls to the media.

The national media, perhaps a bit burnt on North Dakota as a result of the oil boom, haven’t showed up yet on the issue of drones.

I have Google alert set up for “North Dakota drones” and for the past few months I’ve seen national media outlets only a few times — and most of those were in some way related to the Brossart case. That’s why I had a tinge of excitement when I saw this story from the Grand Forks Herald pop up in my email.

That excitement faded fast.

I kept waiting for one of my favorite parts of a news story. The part where the writer gets to say “But some…” In this case, that transition should have read: “But some in the state are raising privacy concerns as legislators and business leaders push for drone technology that can already surveil homes and businesses without being detected, and has the potential to do much more.”

That’s how you balance out a news story. You just have to find someone willing to be quoted to follow the “But some…” transition.

I know the “some” part of that story’s turn exist. I just don’t know if the media in this state know that to tell the tale in its entirety, they need to find them.

So the next time eyes are rolled at a story about problems in the oil patch, keep in mind that some of us are coming from a different angle. Just like those drones will be unless things change, right over the top of your house without a warrant.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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