Local journalism matters more than ever

April 20, 2016 01:30

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chair-Elect
This post is a revised version of a speech Duffy gave to the Midwest Journalism Conference in Minnesota on April 9, 2016.

You may have heard about this little news story we’re covering in Michigan. People in the city of Flint, almost 100,000 residents, haven’t been able to safely drink their water for about two years.

While the Flint water crisis revealed a massive failure on the part of state government in Michigan, it also demonstrated the importance of local journalism, the kind of journalism local newspapers, radio and TV stations should strive to do every day.

For quick background, the city of Flint, under the control of state appointed emergency manager, decided to leave the Detroit water system and use water from the Flint River while waiting for their own pipe to connect them to Lake Huron to be built.

The water problems since that switch included e coli, too many chemicals, not enough chemicals, possibly legionella bacteria, and lead. The lead in the water has been the biggest problem. River water is more corrosive than lake water, but environmental regulators saw no need to use corrosion control, and the water ate away at the lead pipes. Early warnings of the problem were either dismissed, ignored or covered up, depending on who you believe.

It was the work of local journalists that changed the government’s message from “everyone who is worried about the water in Flint can just relax” last summer, to Governor Snyder apologizing for the problem in his State of the State address last January.

But while the Governor was saying he was sorry to the people of Flint many in n the national media were also apologizing and throwing up their hands, wondering how the press missed such an important story.

Here was this large U-S city, existing like some third world country, and nobody knew. “If only someone reported on the Midwest”, they wrote. If only someone had been there from the beginning to follow this. If only someone paid attention to poor communities of color.

But someone did. Local journalists. Michigan Radio was there, and the Flint Journal (known online as Mlive) was there, local television stations were there, and we’ve all been covering this mess since the beginning. According to Media Matters (and I’m glad they counted because I wouldn’t have taken the time to do it) Michigan Radio and the Flint Journal combined produced more than 500 stories about the Flint water crisis between the day Flint switched water sources and the day Governor Snyder declared an emergency. While the national media may have been late to this deep well of news, local media stuck with this very complicated story from the beginning, and served our audiences in Flint by eventually getting the state to admit it and react to it.

There are lots of heroes in this drama, but the five people who really got the lead story started were investigative journalist Curt Guyette with the ACLU, Miguel del Toral of the EPA, homeowner Leanne Walters of Flint, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint.

When Curt Guyette first reported the lead levels found in Leanne Walter’s home on the ACLU website, he also sent a copy of the report to Michigan Radio, because we had been covering the Flint water issue so closely.

To be honest, we didn’t report that story until a day later because we spent all afternoon arguing in the newsroom about it. The lead level numbers were unbelievably high in Walter’s home and Michigan Radio reporters who had been on the environmental beat a long time kept pushing back, saying these numbers just can’t be right, residential lead levels couldn’t be this high from a city water system.

But they were that high. It alarmed us. It alarmed the Flint Journal. It alarmed researchers at Virginia Tech. It alarmed local pediatricians.

It did not seem to alarm, however, anyone in Michigan state government.

So local journalists kept digging. Michigan Radio already had a Flint based reporter who was covering Flint every day, and the Flint Journal and local television news outlets were also on the story.

As the story got bigger we couldn’t continue to cover it with just one or two reporters and we put together the “Flint team.” The team included our Flint reporter, a reporter with investigative experience, our environmental reporter, our web producer and our assistant news director as editor. This team was on this story every day and could do what national outlets that eventually stopped in for visits couldn’t do.

They developed source relationships with major players. They were able to cover all the protests and visit people in their homes to find out if anything was changing and what they were being told. They were able to figure out how the state was manipulating the way it reported testing results by dropping samples it didn’t like. And they were able to get stories out to a national audience. Michigan Radio filed many stories on NPR that aired nationally before other national outlets came to town.

But the story still wasn’t resonating. This remains an extremely complicated story and the PR machine from the Governor’s office and state agencies were either confused themselves or were doing a real good job confusing people.

One of their major rebuttals was that the decision to switch to the Flint river was made by local officials, not the state appointed emergency manager. This was demonstrably not true if you went through the city council minutes and the FOIA documents, but the state was very good at sticking to its talking points.

On our website and on social media and through other audience engagement it was clear to us that people were confused by the mixed messages, and since nobody in the audience hears or reads every story, there were major gaps in their knowledge and understanding of the story line. So we decided to put it all together in a documentary that aired last December called Not Safe to Drink.

It was a full hour telling the Flint water crisis story in narrative form from start to finish. After the documentary aired, is when the “untreated material that goes to the water treatment plant” really hit the fan.

The reaction from the state was to attack the messenger. First the governor’s office claimed we had major errors in the documentary and demanded we pull it and air a retraction. When members of the Flint team and I set up a conference call with their press people to talk about what they thought we got wrong, we were much more prepared than they were, and shut down all of their criticisms. But they stuck to their  statement that it was the local city council that approved the switch to the Flint river as a water source, not the state.

So the day after the documentary aired, we also produced this reporter’s notebook which went through why we thought we were right and the Governor’s spokesperson was wrong.

So that didn’t help our relationship with the Governor’s office. After that the Governor’s office and state agencies would no longer communicate with us except through emails, which isn’t optimal for radio.

Three days after our documentary aired, the national media did start to pay attention, and that began with Rachel Maddow’s 13 minute special report that borrowed liberally from our documentary. (She eventually did give us credit and included our reporters in her programs.)

But once that happened this story became a firehose of news. During January, February and the first half of March, the Flint team and I were working basically 24-7 on this story. The Governor’s office would sign executive emergency declarations and national guard deployment orders around 11:30 at night, major FOIA document dumps of thousands of pages would drop at 5:15 on a Friday night. During those three months we never had a time when someone wasn’t working on this story.
And even then we couldn’t keep up.
We’d divide the thousands of emails released by the Governor’s office among the 7 of us and try to get through them overnight, but we didn’t have the staff size the newspapers could put on it and they’d beat us with those stories.

We also couldn’t feed NPR features fast enough, and we are still consistently working with the network on this story.

So many news outlets around the world wanted to talk with our reporters about Flint that we had to say no to many of them. We even got an interview request from the MMA Channel on Sirius/XM. Flint had become a big story.

Here’s the point.

The results of this story – the problem being admitted, the people of Flint getting help, the state and federal officials who resigned or were fired or reassigned, the renewed interest in lead poisoning and water systems around the country - it would not have happened if it were not for LOCAL journalism.

We sometimes treat local journalism like it’s not as big a deal or as important as the national networks. But in the communities we cover that is not the case. This story would not have come to light without local journalists, and now that the national media have turned their attention to Trump, and Zika and the Panama Papers, local journalists are still in Flint chasing this story.

These types of stories are probably in your community too. Maybe not undrinkable water, but other equally important stories.  Whether your staff is bigger or smaller than Michigan Radio’s, you can really serve your audience and do important journalism by finding them and sticking to them. Don’t just believe what you’re told by officials, and question things even when they seem crazy like the first reported lead levels we saw.

There’s been a lot of criticism over the past few years about local news and its lack of quality journalism. People complain local journalists are just stenographers of the daily mayhem, a parade of bodies and fires. The say we rely too much on pre-produced, pre-packaged, PR friendly content. We feel we are more concerned with hits, social media likes and retweets than good journalism.

I know that’s not entirely true, and to the extent that the criticism is true, it doesn’t have to be. Whether you’re in a big shop or a small one, being in your community every day and paying attention to what’s going on and asking questions and challenging authority and not buying the narrative offered by the powerful, that will result in quality journalism.

And yes, the national media may still say “nobody covered the story” until they came to town. But you’ll know, your audience will know, and hopefully the people who make poor decisions in the future, that affect so many people in your community, they will know as well.

Vincent Duffy is News Director at Michigan Radio.