Flint Water Crisis Highlights Need for Greater Media Focus on the Environment

Flint Michigan resident Lee Anne Walters, second from right, reacts as Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan, left, testifies dur
Flint Michigan resident Lee Anne Walters, second from right, reacts as Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan, left, testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, March 17, 2016. Democrats in Congress Thursday called on Snyder, once a rising Republican star considered as a potential vice president and now fighting to keep his job, to resign for missing the warning signs of lead contamination in Flints water supply. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Flint water crisis reached a boiling point with members of congress pointing fingers across the aisle at hearings last week and alternately calling for the resignations of EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

The issue continues to make national headlines on a daily basis which is not surprising given that contaminated water in Flint has resulted in thousands of children being poisoned and is suspected to be linked to 10 deaths from Legionnaires' disease.

What is shocking about the media's coverage of the Flint water crisis is not how much media attention it is getting now, but how little national coverage the story received for more than a year.

As a Michigan resident who tracks environmental news coverage as part of my job, I was shocked to see that while some local news organizations covered concerns about Flint's water, there was virtually no national coverage of the issue before the Fall of 2015. With environmental stories garnering only 1% of headlines, the tragedy in Flint highlights the critical need for stronger environmental reporting, and demonstrates the power of the media to shine a spotlight on this type of disaster and the tragic consequences that arise when it fails to do so.

Since the national media began focusing on Flint, several positive steps have been taken. Water from the Flint River, which caused the problem, is no longer flowing through taps in the city and a $220 million bill to replace the lead-leaching pipes is making its way through the Senate. Additionally, some of the people who bear some responsibility for the crisis at state and federal agencies have been forced to resign.

Had this all happened right away the response likely would have been seen as an adequate reaction to a preventable tragedy. Unfortunately these steps were taken 18 months or more after citizens of Flint started drinking contaminated water and more than a year after GM stopped using the water at its manufacturing plant because it was too corrosive. It's hard to believe that had concerns about Flint's water been in national headlines right away, this action would have taken so long.

This failure by the national media is a symptom of a much broader lack of environmental news coverage. With the exception of 2014, news coverage of the environment has been steadily decreasing in recent years with many national news organizations reducing or eliminating positions for environmental reporters and editors (though some, including The Huffington Post, have made environmental reporting a priority). Many nationally focused news organizations continue to have 10, 20 or even 50 times the number of headlines on trivial topics like celebrities and entertainment compared to environment-focused headlines.

Though some question whether news consumers want more stories about the environment, the environment is by definition everything that affects us in our daily lives, including the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat. Flint is a tragic reminder that we all care very much about these issues. Furthermore, surveys suggest that younger generations, the very demographic coveted by news organizations, are more concerned about environmental issues than their parents.

National news organizations can choose to prioritize the environment in the same way they prioritize other topics like the economy, national security, politics, sports and entertainment, and there are proven steps that have resulted in better coverage. Investing directly in environmental reporters and editors is one obvious option, but outlets can also explore pooling resources with other news organizations to create environmental content, or collaborating with independent and nonprofit news organizations already producing excellent environmental reporting.

In addition to Flint, we've seen many environmental crises throughout the country in recent years from the toxic waste spill in West Virginia, to the ever increasing wild fires and water shortages in California, to a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. These disasters demonstrate that the next great environmental crisis could occur anywhere, threatening the health, safety and economy of an entire community.

Flint is just the most recent environmental crisis to show us that proper coverage of the causes and responses to these tragedies is a critical responsibility of the media. Citizen's knowledge and understanding of these threats and the adequate and timely response from government and non-government organizations is directly tied to the amount of national media coverage that is received.

While the tragedy in Flint has caused irreversible harm, it does provide an opportunity for news organizations to reflect and take conscious steps to strengthen environmental reporting to ensure that the next environmental crisis receives the attention it warrants right from the beginning.