How National Media Failed Flint

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which thousands of residents have been exposed to everything from cancer-causing chemicals to lead in their drinking water, dates back nearly two years. But the unfolding story had received scant coverage from the national media until a month ago, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency for Flint.

Why did it take so long for major national outlets to focus closely on the story, even as local outlets had been doggedly covering it for well over a year?

In interviews with Media Matters, media observers and the journalists who have been covering the story in Michigan cite a wide range of factors, including continued newsroom cutbacks, the complexities of a story that combines government mismanagement with detailed science, and competition from the presidential primary campaign, breaking news events, and click-bait like celebrity gossip.

"The Flint water crisis went under the media's radar. It was lost in what's trending on Twitter, who liked what on Facebook, and the next poppin pics on Instagram," said Jiquanda Johnson, a reporter at The Flint Journal since Oct. 2014 and a Flint native. "Journalists have become lazy. We wait for the obvious and jump on trends. Flint's water crisis didn't make the social media cut so it was missed. It didn't make headlines like the Charleston killings, Ferguson protests over Michael Brown's death or Ed Garner's choking. Is it racism? Is it classism? Is it both or neither? I don't know."

"I do know that Flint's issues were not just neatly packaged and ready for media," she added. "They required work, digging, sifting and a lot of questioning. Things were not as blatant as a cop pulling out a gun, shooting it and killing a young black man. Or as clear as a white man walking into a church."

Anna Clark, a freelancer who covers the Midwest media for the Columbia Journalism Review, said the national press likely got caught up in other issues.

"It is kind of amazing that it didn't get much media notice nationally," she said. "It's troubling because the national media is kind of blowing it up this month. ... The reason for that slowness, some of that is everybody is so concentrated with political campaign coverage. National media, too, is strapped for resources and following around candidates. There is also not much of an infrastructure for the national outlets to cover the Midwest."

She said such limited coverage can also impact how government tends to respond and address problems: "We are beginning to see the consequences of fewer people around in news. National coverage around these stories really gives a boost and puts pressure on public officials."

The water story first broke in April 2014, but the backstory actually dates back to 2011 when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed the first of several emergency managers to help with Flint's financial crisis.

In March 2013, the Flint city council voted to switch the city's water supply from the Detroit water system to a new pipeline to Lake Huron that would take three years to complete, a decision that was given final approval by the state treasurer. In June of that year, Flint's state-appointed emergency manager made the decision -- with state approval -- to use water from the Flint River while the new pipeline was being built, and that switch took effect in April 2014.

Less than a month later, residents began to complain about the smell and taste of the water. The Flint Journal, which had been following the fiscal situation and water switching debate, ran its first stories on the complaints then.

"When we first started writing about it, it was something that was of interest if you were on the water system," recalls Ron Fonger, a Flint Journal reporter since 1995 and the paper's lead reporter on the story. 

He said there would have been no reason for national interest that far back.

But then things got worse.

In September 2014, the water tested positive for E. coli and residents were ordered to boil it. General Motors announced that October that it would stop using Flint River water because it could corrode engine parts.

Then, in January 2015, Flint residents were notified that their water system violated the Safe Drinking Water Act because the water contained unacceptable levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), dangerous chemicals that are formed as a byproduct of disinfecting water.

"The first time I think you could say that someone else should have started paying attention was that first week of January 2015, that's when I thought we were getting into a big story," Fonger said. "The city, without explanation to anybody, sent out a citywide mailing saying you have excess levels of trihalomethanes. It was astonishing that the city without warning was going to spring this into people's mailboxes."

The next month, the first signs of lead were observed in the city's drinking water -- in University of Michigan-Flint drinking fountains and Flint resident LeeAnne Walters' home. Walters later found her children exposed to lead, with one child having "bona fide lead poisoning." 

At that point, the unfolding crisis garnered a brief round of national attention. In addition to reports by the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, The New York Times published a detailed story in March 2015 about concerns over Flint's water. But none of these outlets returned to the story until the fall. The Times' minimal coverage -- and lack of follow-ups featuring "serious digging" in the intervening months -- prompted Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to criticize the paper in a Jan. 27, 2016, column that stated:

The Times got off to a strong start with its initial Flint story in March. It was good to return to the subject in October; and this month's coverage has been thorough. But there could have been, and should have been, much more. If -- for example -- the March article had been followed up with some serious digging, and if the resulting stories had been given prominent display, public officials might have been shamed into taking action long before they did.

Concerns grew even greater in late August and early September 2015, when Virginia Tech researchers found high levels of lead in nearly half of 120 homes sampled. Later in September, Flint Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha released research that the percentage of children with lead poisoning had roughly doubled since the city switched its water source. A county public health emergency was declared in October 2015. In December 2015, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was elected just a month earlier, declared a state of emergency for the city of Flint, seeking state and federal aid. On January 5, Gov. Snyder followed suit.

Many local and national news outlets contend that Snyder's state of emergency declaration and an investigation launched by the Michigan attorney general 10 days later prompted the national media coverage that still continues today.

"The delay is understandable" said Steve Carmody, a reporter for Michigan Radio who has been on the story since the beginning. "It is a story that's been building for a long time on the local level. I can see why people outside of Flint did not see it or understand it as a local issue until there was a big red flag flying high that the national media can see."

Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, said the complexities of a story mixing government mismanagement with water science and health safety might have turned some journalists and readers off.

"It's a very complicated story with a lot of layers. People want it to be digested sometimes in partisan political soundbites," she said. "I think a lot of national media have done great jobs, but some of the narratives of some of the publications have been streamlined at the expense of context, which is crucial to understanding a story. It's also the appetite of people to read it, how many people will sit down and take time with a deep dive. Complicated stories don't always elicit a lot of readers."

Detroit News managing editor Gary Miles, who said he currently has up to six reporters out of his 130-person newsroom on the story at any one time, also points to other major stories during the past year as occupying the attention of the national press, not least of which has been the presidential primary season.

"The focus of the national press on the national campaign has been intense because of so many Republicans," Miles said. "And the way the Flint crisis emerged meant that it was tough to maybe recognize for that national media when it became a story where kids' lives were in jeopardy."

He also added, "It kind of transcends just one beat. When you look at who knew what when, it is a more complicated story than you think."

Vincent Duffy, Michigan Radio news director, agrees there are many reasons for the later national attention, but adds that it's not a complete excuse.

"There could have been better communications with local media in Flint to our national outlets to keep them aware of this," he said. "The problem is not just that national outlets are ignoring smaller communities, but you do not have as strong a local journalism as there used to be that is feeding that up to national outlets."

Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, has been covering the story for a year and says more coverage should have started at least back in July 2015.

"Certainly in July, I think it was a major story, yes," he said. "That is when I published an internal EPA memo sounding the alarm that one home had two and half times the lead levels needed to determine it was hazardous waste. At least in terms of the lead, but people were complaining about the water in general since April 2014."

The Detroit News' Miles said the story really got big at least by September.

"The lead was out in a conclusive way in September, that changed the tenor of the story," he recalled. "That's when the story took a significant change, it has been out there for a year and a half. High lead levels in children being found goes back to the fall."

Last September, an article by Guyette that ran in the Detroit Metro Times highlighted findings from the researchers at Virginia Tech, who concluded based on extensive testing that "unless run through a filter designed to capture toxic heavy metals, the water is unsafe for drinking or cooking." Guyette also noted, "An ACLU of Michigan investigation running concurrent with the water sampling has uncovered a number of problems with the city's testing procedures, which were conducted with state oversight. The flawed measures helped assure that the city could be able to claim compliance with federal regulations."                

Common Cause, a nonpartisan grassroots organization that has been urging transparency from Gov. Snyder and calling for a congressional select committee to investigate the crisis, pointed to Guyette's work for the ACLU as evidence that the media dropped the ball.

Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause, said, "When people's health and lives are the line -- especially threatened by something as essential as water -- no one can move fast enough. Local reporters did what they could in an era of slashed budgets, staffs, and loop-hole riddled Freedom of Information Laws. The national media was slow to realize the impact of the Flint Water Crisis. That it took an advocacy organization hiring an investigative journalist to get to the core of the story should be alarming to all of us."

Echoing Sullivan at the Times, The Washington Post editor Martin Baron said he wished The Post had been on the story sooner.

"We could have done more sooner, no question. I imagine the same is true of other major national news outlets," Baron said. "When local issues have national resonance, that's definitely a story for a national publication such as ours."

Asked how he decides when to send resources into a local story, Baron said, "The Post covers the country. When water supplied to a large community is unsafe to drink -- and when the crisis has persisted for a long time and may not abate soon -- there's no question that we should cover that aggressively. There are also important, overarching issues of whether the population in Flint was treated inequitably by government, given that its population is heavily black and poor."

David Callaway, editor-in-chief of USA Today, said his paper has an unusual situation as the flagship of the 94-newspaper Gannett chain. He said they draw most of their local coverage from their local newspapers. Among them is the Detroit Free Press.

"In this case, I would say we weren't first to Flint, [but] we were one of the first," Callaway said. "We didn't send any of our people to Flint, as we support them with graphics and slide shows. We would have if [The] Detroit [Free Press] made a big deal of it years ago. I sure wish we had, that's news, that's important stuff, a water lead story is a story of our times." 

In addition to calling out the media, Common Cause's Rapoport also pointed to the state government's handling of the crisis, telling Media Matters, "But the people responsible for the Flint Water Crisis, Governor Snyder and the Emergency Manager, should have alerted the public. The challenge is in every community with an Emergency Manager, the only elected official that can be held accountable is Gov. Rick Snyder. He invoked, hired, and manages the Emergency Managers -- and after delaying the news of the actual threat, he's now stonewalling the release of documents, causing further delay. The people deserve the truth and an accountable government that provides essential services like clean, drinkable water."

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Environment & Science
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