Will Journalists Heed the Lessons of Flint?

March 1, 2016



Flint Journal reporter Ron Fonger takes notes as former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling holds petitions for the city to end its use of the Flint River.                                                             Photo: Jake May / The Flint Journal


The lead-laced drinking water debacle in Flint, Mich., became a top national story in December 2015. By January 2016, a Poynter Institute blog headlined: “How the Media Blew Flint.”

Did we blow it? Well, yes and no.

Almost everybody blew Flint.

Earlier warnings and louder watchdogging might have headed off the failures and kept neurotoxic lead out of kids’ bloodstreams. To competent water treatment engineers, to conscientious drinking water regulators, to experienced environmental reporters, none of this should have been a surprise.

Flint was a repeat of lessons taught long ago.

Yet a lot of local and regional media didn’t blow it. In fact, the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press and the micro-budget pubcaster Michigan Radio had done much good work on the Flint story.

Flint Journal reporter Ron Fonger and Detroit Free Press reporter Paul Egan definitely didn’t foul up Flint. Within days of the city’s switch from Detroit water to Flint River water, Fonger was asking skeptical questions and reporting the unfolding disaster. Fonger has written more than 250 stories on the water since the switch in April 2014, according to Upvoted.

Fonger gets extra credit for turning over rocks and publishing warnings — stories about discolored water, disturbing symptoms, coliform bacteria, trihalomethanes, government misreporting and nonreporting, and lead levels in both the water and children’s blood.

But such coverage took place against a backdrop of steady official denials that there was any problem. And the national media were not there yet.

Once the resignations and the finger-pointing began, the national media — often general assignment and political reporters — parachuted in, started covering it and pronounced themselves shocked. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan acknowledged as much in a January 27, 2016, column.

So the national media failure involved not just a lack of curiosity and concern, but a general readiness to credit deceptive or inaccurate official statements. Or to accept official silence.

Flint’s not first such story, nor the last

But another failure of many in the media is inability to see, remember and learn from the lessons of the past.

Something very like the Flint debacle happened a decade ago in Washington, D.C. A big urban drinking water system developed pervasive lead problems. There were whistleblowers, a government (Centers for Disease Control) denial and cover-up — and a major-media (Washington Post) investigative exposé. The problem was understood, and eventually mostly fixed.

The D.C. debacle was in some ways the same as the one in Flint: changes to the chemistry of the water system caused corrosion of lead in aging pipes, which causes health-harming concentrations of lead in water at the tap, which poisons kids.

The fix was changing the chemistry of the water to control the corrosion, testing and treating the kids drinking the water, and ultimately (at some expense) replacing most of the lead pipes.

Journalists are certainly not the only ones who failed to learn these lessons. The failures in Flint fall also at the feet of the operators of the Flint drinking water plant, the Flint emergency manager, the state Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the U.S. EPA regional office and the EPA national office.

A competent water plant operator would know enough to anticipate and correct for the problem. A competent regulator would admit the truth and ensure the fix happened. The law requires it.

In fact, Miguel Del Toral, a Region 5 lead expert for EPA did try to warn EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman of the threat to public health in Flint. But Hedman effectively shut him up and warned that his report should not have reached the public.

This is the kind of thing journalism is supposed to reveal.When it was exposed — and not simply by news media — Hedman had to resign.

Flint offers once again to teach the lesson that it is wrong — sometimes disastrous — to prevent government employees like Del Toral from talking to journalists and the public.

Right now that seems often to be the policy of EPA’s main press office — seemingly out of the mistaken belief that if they keep message control tight enough they can prevent PR disasters. What deception and nondisclosure bought EPA instead, in this case, was an even bigger PR disaster.

Here’s another lesson. If you understand the lead problem, you understand that it can be a problem in many water systems — especially older water systems, which means systems in the East. And that means that there are lead stories — and untold lead stories — in many U.S. cities beyond Flint.

While the Flint debacle is egregious and deserves focus, the focus on it should not distract journalists from looking for similar stories closer to home. Only a few news media have looked at this bigger picture. One who did was SEJ board member Randy Lee Loftis in National Geographic.

‘Outsider’ journalism does much of work on Flint

Another thing to notice about the good work Fonger and others did is that much of the most important stuff they got did not come directly from official sources, but from outsiders. Some of the credit for unearthing the story goes to their nongovernment sources.

Among them was concerned mom Lee Anne Walters, who dogged the agencies relentlessly for info because she wanted to protect her son, Garrett. And Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who a decade earlier had helped break the cover-up of D.C.’s lead problem.

A key figure in the Flint story has been pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who compiled data that showed the number of children in Flint with elevated levels of lead in their blood had doubled.                               Photo: Katie Rausch / The Blade

There was also the brigade of Flint citizens who sampled water to check government lead findings. And Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician whose research revealed the spike in lead poisoning among city children.

And there was Del Toral, who was not supposed to talk to reporters, but did. (Lesson: your job is not done once you have talked to the agency spokesperson.)

It was not only journalists such as the Flint Journal’s Fonger, the Detroit Free Press’ Egan and The Guardian’s Ryan Felton, who filed the Freedom of Information Act requests. Some of the most productive FOIA requests were filed by Edwards and a non-traditional journalist named Curt Guyette (more on him in a moment).

That’s another thing: Some of the best journalism produced on the Flint story was done by non-traditional journalists in nonjournalistic settings.

A case in point is Guyette, who works for the Michigan ACLU and has the job title “investigative reporter.” (OK — we don’t usually label someone working for an advocacy group a “reporter,” but that’s the point.)

Guyette, who spent a career working for alternative papers, was one of the few doing truly “old school” journalism. He was the one who requested Del Toral’s memo under FOIA. And then he published it: both the redacted version released by EPA and the unredacted version that leaked.

It was the kind of old-school journalism too rarely done by the traditional media covering this story and many others. EPA officials, in FOIA’d memos, questioned Guyette’s objectivity. But the memos proved EPA’s deception and negligence.

Guyette told Brooke Gladstone of “On The Media,” “I really don’t care what they think of me. When you have the documents, when you have the testimony, it really doesn’t matter what they think. … My main job is to provide information to the public.”

‘News is what people want to keep hidden’

Another lesson for journalists to note is how many lies had been told by how many people and agencies before the lid finally came off. Reporting legend I.F. Stone said it years ago: “All governments lie.”

In Michigan, state officials insisted the water was safe, even when internal memos showed it wasn’t. They insisted it met standards, even as they were fudging the test methods. They said they were testing the highest-risk households, even though documents showed they had no idea which those were.

The Michigan DEQ’s top spokesman, Brad Wurfel, said in July 2015 that “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” Perhaps this goes to show that reporters should not put too much stock in the words of agency spokespeople — Wurfel resigned December 29, 2015, joining his boss, DEQ director Dan Wyant.

Environmental journalists should love the transparency provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act itself — and exploit them. As written in 1974, the SDWA included proactive disclosure requirements that still are among the strongest in any environmental law.

In a nutshell, it mandates an open regulatory process and requires agencies to tell customers if their drinking water is contaminated. Certainly, these goals were evaded by local, state and federal officials in the Flint fiasco.

More generally, studies have found that many drinking water systems do a poor job of meeting disclosure requirements. Still, the law gives reporters a strong foundation for investigating not only any contaminants in local drinking water, but also the integrity of the regulatory and enforcement process meant to protect public health.

In the wake of Flint, the Associated Press reported Jan. 26 that Sebring, Ohio, a rust-belt city near Youngstown, discovered lead in its drinking water — and also discovered that the water utility had kept them in the dark about it for months.

It’s like what journalist and commentator Bill Moyers told SEJ members at their 2005 annual conference in Austin, Texas: “News is what people want to keep hidden. Everything else is publicity.”

Joseph A. Davis has written about the environment for four decades. He is director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project.


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Spring 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

SEJ Publication Types: