On Water Problems and Media Coverage: Is the Media Spread too Thin?

It turns out that Flint, MI, is not the only community with a water crisis.

Sebring, OH, is facing its own water crisis which, at least as far as I have seen, is not being covered nearly as widely as the large-scale crisis in Flint. Sebring is a very small town of around 4,000 people which recent water tests showed as having abnormally high levels of both lead and copper, prompting schools to be closed pending further testing. But whereas Flint is dominating the news right now, the crisis in Sebring appears to have not captured widespread media interest -- something I can also attest to.

As I write this, my hometown in Kentucky is also facing a water crisis of its own. Sometime around 1 AM on Thursday morning, I noticed that I had no water pressure. Minor water problems are nothing new here; I live on an upper floor of the building, and it's common for the water pressure to experience extreme fluctuations. When I attempt to wash the dishes, for example, I sometimes will have next to no water pressure at all; other times, it will be fine, and the majority of the time, it's mediocre-yet-usable. Hot water sometimes will not even run, as opposed to running but being either cold or lukewarm. It's a way of life here.

So initially, I thought nothing of it. That was until over two hours later, when I found that I still had no water pressure to speak of. It was at this time that I called the Housing Authority's answering service to see if any other tenants had complained about water issues. The lady who answered said that no one else had reported any issues. I put in a formal complaint that I hadn't had any water in over two hours. She took my phone number and said she would report it to maintenance. I finally went to bed at around 4:30 AM; no one ever bothered to return my call or come up to the apartment. As far as the conversation went, I was the only person in the complex who had no access to running water, and I was on my own.

I didn't sleep much that night, waking up at around 9:30 AM and finally just getting up at 10:00 or so. When I woke up and went to the bathroom, water service was partially restored; the cold water ran, but not the hot. I went downstairs to the office at around 11 AM or so, and there were bottles of water for residents to pick up. The woman in the office told me that there had been a water line break with no ETA on when water service would be restored; the break had occurred literally right outside the building. At this time, the water had been shut back off entirely; I rechecked it before going downstairs. I decided that I was going to have to go out to eat and would recheck things when I got home. I had a sink full of dirty dishes; my skillets were dirty, and I had no food other than canned soup which could be prepared without either a skillet or water. And with a sink full of dirty dishes, I could only use up so much in terms of bowls or silverware before finally needing to wash them.

The water was back on when I returned home, but when I spoke to residents downstairs, I learned that there was now a Boil Water Advisory in effect. This was basically all I could find out; in fact, it's not even clear exactly how much of the town is covered by it.

No Coverage and No Information

One FYI before I continue: The utility situation here is that, in general, we don't pay water or utility bills; the only things we are responsible for are TV, phone, Internet, and a small monthly charge five months out of the year of $20 apiece for electricity ($100 per year). So we don't actually receive bills with support numbers for the basics, such as water service.

When I came back to my apartment, I decided to check for local announcements on the Internet to try and find more information about the Boil Water Advisory, namely its approximate duration and the exact parts of town affected. I was dismayed when I found literally no information whatsoever from any source. I sent two tweets to an anchor at one of our local news stations to whom I have spoken on Twitter before but did not receive a response. Late last night, and again this evening, I tried to dig up information from any conceivable source. I can still find no information whatsoever. To make matters worse, when I again spoke with the lady in our office today, she told me that in actuality, this Boil Water Advisory may be indefinite because it will depend on the next round of testing. We do not know when that testing will happen.

Few Dedicated Media Sources; Poor Local Coverage

The basic media presence in my area consists of three television stations and two primary local papers. We naturally have access to major sources such as USA Today, Lexington Herald Leader, and so forth. The problem with my corner of Kentucky, however, is that we have literally zero news stations dedicated to Kentucky, and only one of the two newspapers is based in Kentucky. The only television station located in this part of Kentucky is dedicated solely to religious programming and westerns. Take a look at this list of TV stations within Kentucky; the closest mainstream station is located in Morehead, which is approximately 60 to 90 minutes away.

Our biggest problem with the three local television stations is that they are quite literally spread too thin; each one covers territory in parts of three states. Each covers the majority of West Virginia; a chunk of southeastern Ohio; and most of eastern Kentucky. WOWK, for example, covers a total of 61 counties within these three states. This is a relatively large geographic area for one or even multiple stations to cover; there is simply no way to cover every significant news story within such an expansive area! So I tried again to request media coverage of our water situation:

Visiting the Web sites for our two local newspapers similarly turned up no information on the Boil Water Advisory, or even that there have been any problems with water in the area. Over the last approximately three weeks, there have been no fewer than three different sites around town where I either witnessed water problems (an apparently gushing line over on the highway) or saw places which had been dug up (outside our building and near the city limits). When I was in downtown Ashland just days ago, I even noticed what appeared to be a fourth site of possible water problems on a closed side street.

Perhaps most amazingly in all of this, however, is that even visiting the Web site for the city of Ashland -- which supplies water to our town -- turned up no information! In fact, it appears no announcement has even crossed its surface since November 2015. In checking the various sections of the site, I was also unable to locate a specific page for the water department, nor could I find anything specific for them on a standard Web search. In short, there is literally no official information to be found anywhere with regard to water problems in this town! Tonight, I still have a sink full of dirty dishes which I cannot wash due to contaminated water, and I am having to eat out for most of my meals now, spending money I don't really have since I'm only just now re-entering the workforce after three months.

This is not the first time we have had water problems, nor is it the first time there has been little, if any, coverage. Water problems tend to come up for different sections of town every few months. I can't even recall how many times the site near the city limits has been dug up. It's not uncommon for there to be a veritable crater in the middle of the highway for days or even weeks on end at that location. For the last few years, particularly during winter, there have been issues with line breaks and low water pressure, most of which are rarely, if ever, covered by any local media outlet. I even enlisted help from independent journalist Rania Khalek in early 2014, when we were having problems at the same time as West Virginia's massive water contamination crisis. A snippet from that E-mail:

I went to Speedway, one of the local convenience stores, to see if they had any water; at this point, so many of our local businesses were starting to accommodate the crisis in West Virginia that I began worrying about our own access to water. Sure enough, they were nearly sold out. I got a couple of liters, though. But I decided to ask what they had heard. One of the clerks told me that he was told by the water department that they were going to shut the water completely OFF Friday night; that didn't happen, but it alerted me they might still do so. Then I talked to a couple of customers; one told me she heard it might be resolved sometime today (it's not).

This is a perfect example of local media being spread too thin; while everyone was focused on West Virginia's water crisis, a smaller-yet-still-important water crisis was almost completely ignored.

And even cultural events are sometimes ignored by The Daily Independent. For example, my mother told me recently about a concert she would have tried to attend -- except for the fact that there were no local media announcements until that newspaper published one on the day of the show. This is quite common for the paper; many cultural events are not announced until either very close to their scheduled dates, or sometimes after the fact. This is naturally a great way to show support of local businesses and events, by publicizing events when it's too late for anyone to make plans to attend.

I suspect our town's problems with being relatively ignored by the local media are not isolated. I can picture many smaller communities around the United States facing struggles of their own, yet not receiving the type of attention which could help make a difference. I'm certainly not an expert in the field, but I cannot imagine that the overall trend of media consolidation within many markets is helping. The reason I decided to write this is to try and bring some type of focus to the problem -- and maybe help my community and others like it a little bit in the process. For now, I simply hope that our water problems are resolved soon, and that someone in our area will take note and actually give us some information.