Words by Russell Wilson, Photos by Gordon Friedman
John Sepulvado has covered gangs, cartels and riots around the globe for the past decade, but the Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter encountered a first when dispatched to Harney County in early January.
“I can’t remember anyone actively breaking the law, with firearms in hand, courting the press. They wanted to start a revolution there.”
Sepulvado was one of the first on the scene of the quixotic occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns. He was also one of the last to leave after the revolution climaxed with the roadside shooting death of LaVoy Finicum by state police and ended with 25 militants in handcuffs. Though the 41-day standoff didn’t make for exciting television, the drama played out in real time on social media thanks to local journalists who dug in, adapted and found innovative ways to tell the story of the first American rebellion of the Digital Age.
The occupation itself was the product of social media. In April 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed protest against federal agents when a 20-year dispute over public land grazing fees came to a head. The Bundy family amassed a Facebook following, and their subsequent victory turned them into online folk heroes for the resurgent militia movement.
Nearly two years later, they were rebels in search of a cause. In October, a judge ordered Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had served partial sentences for a rangeland arson conviction, to return to prison in January. Cliven’s son, Ammon, and others moved to Burns in late 2015 and organized protests in favor of the Hammonds.
Counter protests sprung up in the normally quiet town of 2,800. The war of words bordered on threats. Law enforcement grew anxious. By New Year’s Day, everyone was on edge. Something had to give.
On January 2, what began as a peaceful march escalated into a call to action by Bundy, who rallied an armed splinter group to follow him to the vacated wildlife refuge headquarters 30 miles south.
The revolution was on. When the news broke, Sepulvado hit the road for Burns.
“I knew it would become a circus.”
Having covered the Bundys’ 2014 Nevada standoff, it was a safe bet.
While the militants bunkered down at the refuge, another kind of occupying force rolled into Harney County.
“There must have been a hundred, two-hundred reporters out there the first few days,” says Gordon Friedman, a recent Oregon graduate and political reporter for the Salem Statesman-Journal. The paper’s parent company, USA Today, deputized him to feed its national coverage.
“I just went to where things were happening. I didn’t have to think about it at first.”
The national byline, however prestigious, presented its own challenges. Friedman was now under the charge of an unfamiliar editor in New York, and the east coast deadline fell in mid-afternoon in Oregon.
“I’d go out and talk to Ammon, or LaVoy [Finicum], whoever, get some quotes, and email what I had to the rewrite desk. And they would turn what I gathered into a story.”
With that came the challenge of pleasing the audiences of both papers with one article. Whereas USAT readers needed help finding Burns on a map, S-J readers wanted details: What the governor was doing, what the sheriff was saying, who the occupiers were. In response, Friedman pursued feature stories, established a rapport with the militants that led to access inside the perimeter and began using his personal Twitter account to send out credible information when he got it.
“I didn’t have time to come up with some big social media strategy,” he says. “I just tweeted what I thought was interesting.”
He got over 1.5 million views during the occupation.
“That’s totally irregular for me. But I was definitely reaching my audience. It’s the best way to follow a story. You know exactly where it’s going to be.”
The occupation wore on. Days turned into weeks. Interviews with “Tarp Man” and looping footage of drab buildings among snowy sagebrush failed to satisfy the cable networks’ voracious appetite for action. The story faded from television.
Meanwhile, regional outlets like the Oregonian and OPB held firm. The “circus” hadn’t gone anywhere; it just wasn’t happening in the open. This was an ideological battle, and the occupiers were savvier than the caricatures people saw on TV. The real action was online.
That was where the audience was, too. At the same time he was reporting for OPB’s radio and web page, John Sepulvado also used his personal Twitter account to provide updates and engage with thousands who were following the situation closely.
“The people following me on Twitter were much more interested in the minutiae of what was happening,” he says. Unlike with a broadcast audience, who may tune in once daily, he could bypass context and get right to the point with pertinent details. He earned his followers’ trust by being transparent, authentic and rigorous, and they rewarded him with reliable news tips, allowing him to be both broadcaster and investigator.
“It was so much more important for us to gather information than to tell it. Twitter was invaluable. It was absolutely the most important tool I had in my toolkit for this story.”
Too many journalists and editors discount the value of social media, he says, to their detriment.
“There were some major stories we broke not because we were looking in the right place, but because someone online said one little thing and we followed up on it. They were interested, they were engaged, and they routinely fed us solid information.”
Sepulvado, Friedman and their colleagues demonstrated the difference between reporting and repeating and gave depth and clarity to an ever-evolving story. The Malheur Refuge occupation was unique in that social media both created it and led to its demise, which, almost fittingly, played out online. Journalists found ways to bring the occupiers and audience together in an unprecedented and compelling way and provided a template for covering future standoffs.
Full disclosure: Gordon Friedman is the former Editor in Chief of Ethos Magazine.