Did the Media Fail Flint?

In the bitter cold of North Dakota, protesters facing rubber bullets, tear gas and vicious dogs continue to cry out, “water is life!” News coverage of the protestors’ struggles has been thorough and even catalyzed policy change.

However, for the people of Flint, Michigan, whose water has been contaminated since 2014, water doesn’t seem to be the top priority for anyone outside or in power. Their toxic pipes have yet to be replaced and little seems to be getting better in the already impoverished city.

The new year begins with waning media coverage of the Flint water crisis; nonetheless, despite what the media claims, the absence of reporting on Flint is not solely because of budget cuts and a lack of environmental news, but also a response to the social media age.

There seems to be two very different schools of thought that have emerged as to why the media has shifted away, while largely ignoring the impact social media has on the lack of coverage.

The first is about the lack of investigative reporting on a national and local level.

Since 2003, newspaper staffs nationwide have decreased by 40 percent, leaving many stories unreported.  Starting in June of 2009, both The Ann Arbor News and The Flint Journal incurred major cuts including the termination of Ann Arbor’s print edition and fewer print days for the Flint Journal. Years later in 2014, these reporting cuts could still be felt in the coverage of the Flint water crisis.  

News stories were scarce in 2014 and 2015 about the public health threat crisis that was being covered up by the Department of Environmental Quality.  Reporters like Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post and formerly of The New York Times are extremely critical of the coverage, stating that if there had been 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.”  

The second train of thought is about environmental racism.

Flint is approximately 50 percent African American, has a poverty rate of 40.1 percent and is home to  approximately 1,000 undocumented immigrants.  Residents are still forced to find the elusive bottle of water, or have no other alternative than to drink and bathe in poisoned water.  Environmental catastrophes generally affect the poor to a much greater extent, and these poor are often minimized by government officials.

“While it might not be intentional, there’s this implicit bias against older cities — particularly older cities with poverty (and) majority-minority communities,” said Democratic U.S. Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents the Flint area.  

Yet, this lack of environmental protection for the poor doesn’t end with government.  The media is also complicit as environmental stories only account for 1 percent of all headlines.  Without giving proper coverage to the poor who are in the most need, the media silences those who are least likely to get attention instead of helping to empower them.

There are additional theories that are also evident in the reporting of the Flint water crisis that started all the way back in 2009, five years before the crisis began. The Flint Journal became almost entirely digital – and stories had to appeal to an online user base.  Stories that wouldn’t do well on Facebook, Twitter and other social media-based news platforms seemed to fall through the cracks.  

Environmental news – especially those stories that almost exclusively affect the poor – generally don’t make for intriguing  clickable titles, so the stories are under reported or just ignored.  Flint really only came to the attention of the nation when organizations like Black Lives Matter and filmmaker Michael Moore popularized the issue with their fan bases with surging “clicks” and “likes” in social media, the story became news.  Without the attention of high profile advocates, however, the story fades.

We must look critically at the news industry and ask if the ability for a story to trend is driving content and causing real news to be overlooked.  And if this is the inevitable outcome of the twenty-first century media business model, how can news outlets adapt to ensure that the most worthy stories get the attention that is needed?

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