Flint, MI Water Crisis: A Media Analysis

Context

The water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan has been an issue permeating various media streams for more than a year now, but the story reached national media attention around late September, 2015 and has increased since then. For example, the Diane Rehm Show discussed the latest developments on the January 20th, 20016 show, just after the Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder issued an apology for the poisoning of Flint residents in his State of the State address on January 19. 2016.

Media Outlet Comparison

I chose four articles to examine, and all were published between January 19th and 27th, 2016. The publications I will compare coverage from include Fox News, The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and Jacobin.

Each of these publications differs in its intended audience and in its view on its articulated role as an information outlet. Fox News describes itself as “Fox Nation” and states that it

“. . . is committed to the core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse, and fair and balanced coverage of the news. It is for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion or suppress freedom of thought, expression, and worship.”

The New York Times states that its primary purpose

“. . . is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information. Producing content of the highest quality and integrity is the basis for our reputation and the means by which we fulfill the public trust and our customers’ expectations.”

Al Jazeera America characterizes its purpose/mission by describing their target audience, stating that it

“. . . targets powerful and diverse audience segments that have been abandoned by mainstream news sources available in the U.S. today. These consumers seek thoughtful news content that is rich in context and free of sensationalism and political bias. Al Jazeera America provides a new alternative for a growing number of American consumers who value news delivered with a human perspective that empowers thought and action.”

Jacobin describes itself as

“. . . a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.”

It functions more as an editorial space than a news outlet and the article I chose was written by an an assistant professor of English at Wayne State University.

Data on the demographics and partisanship of mainstream media outlets indicates more detail on how some of these media outlets tend to attract different demographics. For example, 2012 figures from the Pew Research Center show that Fox News audiences tend to be older, more politically conservative, and less likely to be highly educated than the New York Times audience.

Education of news media viewers news media demographics Partisanship of News Viewers

Al Jazeera America is a relatively new news media outlet in the U.S. Jacobin has an audience of 700,000 a month, based on subscription to their print and online publications.

Article Analysis

Blame game erupts over Flint’s toxic water, Dems target GOP gov

Published 1/19/16 on foxnews.com

This article from FoxNews.com was published the same day as Governor Rick Snyder’s State of the State address, during which he apologized for his role in the crisis.

The headline, “Blame game erupts over Flint’s toxic water, Dems target GOP gov,” sets up the piece as a partisan and quickly delves into a discussion of the Presidential race and the democratic candidates’ recent statements about the crisis. It then references Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder’s Twitter feed for his reaction to the democratic candidates’ reactions. When it does mention the implications of the lead poisoning, it does so with comparatively minimizing language, focusing on the “behavior problems and learning disabilities” that result from poisoning, while omitting arguably more serious consequences such as brain damage that results in a permanent drop in IQ, as well as organ damage. The piece spends much more time discussing “the attacks on Synder” and suggesting other parties that may be implicated. Specifically, the article suggests that not enough attention is being paid to “former Democratic Flint Mayor Dayne Walling or the federal Environmental Protection Agency.” It goes on to discuss the EPA’s role, stating,

“The EPA’s top Midwest official told The Detroit News the agency knew about the lack of corrosion control in the water supply as early as April, after an EPA official identified problems with the drinking water, but did not make the information public.”

and

“Walling was voted out in November, with the water issue cited as a reason for his loss. Neither Walling nor the EPA’s alleged role in the crisis appeared in any criticisms from either Clinton or Sanders.”

In somewhat of a non-sequitur, the article also states “And President Obama is expected to assign a ‘tsar’ to oversee the crisis, Fox News has learned.” It does not state how it have learned that information nor its source.

The piece briefly discusses the responsibility of Michigan state officials, and even highlights that the Governor apologized, but in the same sentence also highlights that someone other than the Governor has been said to be responsible.

“There is little question that the state bears significant responsibility for the public health crisis. Snyder apologized in December and Michigan’s top environmental regulator, Dan Wyant, resigned after a task force created by Snyder blamed problems on his agency.”

At no point does the article mention the Flint Emergency Managers, who were appointed by Governor Snyder, to entertain their potential role in the contamination and subsequent failure to notify residents. It does, however, highlight the statements of “left-wing” and “liberal” activists such as Michael Moore and Jesse Jackson, again referencing Twitter for Moore’s response to the media conversation.

Overall, this piece seemed to be a recounting of the gossip around the crisis rather than an in-depth analysis of the interactions of the variety of factors that went into the crisis.

 

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan Apologizes in Flint Water Crisis

Published on 1/19/16 in The New York Times

This piece was published on the same day as the Fox News piece analyzed above and offers a different picture of the relevant events. Rather than referencing Rick Snyder’s Twitter feed, this piece, focuses on direct quotes from Snyder’s State of the State address.

“Mr. Snyder, who has long boasted of advocating pragmatic solutions over casting blame, was uncharacteristically blunt, contrite and emphatic. ‘I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,’ he said. ‘You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.”

It does not stay above the fray of discussing the reactions of the Presidential candidates, however, it’s mention was comparatively brief stating,

“Flint’s plight also emerged as an issue in Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate.”

Throughout the piece, a wider variety of perspectives are represented from direct sources, including Flint residents, a statement from the EPA, Ronna Romney McDaniel (chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party), Brandon Dillon (chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party), and Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat whose district includes Flint.

After discussing partisan reactions to the crisis, it broadens its analysis and delves into criticisms about Governor Snyder’s style of governance, how it was characterized in the beginning, and how it has been received over the course of his administration. A few examples include:

“Mr. Snyder has tried to stay above the political fray. Running under the slogan “One Tough Nerd,” he was elected in the Republican wave that swept Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Paul LePage of Maine into office.”

 

“In 2013, he angered many Republicans in Michigan by allowing a Medicaid expansion in his state as part of the Affordable Care Act. Yet he also dismayed Democrats when he signed a bill in 2012 making Michigan a “right to work” state, a measure that diminishes the power of organized labor.”

Overall, this piece spends plenty of time discussing partisan reactions to the crisis, though in doing so, it does offer a wider range of perspectives from more reliable sources compared to the piece in Fox News.

 

Michigan governor suspends state workers over Flint water crisis

Published 1/23/16 in Al Jazeera America

Published a few days after the previous two articles, this piece describes the ways that city and state officials have handled the fallout of the issue in recent days and weeks.

Unlike other articles, this piece prominently discusses the role of the Emergency Managers in Flint, explains how they were appointed and why, provides simple explanations of the reasoning behind the decision to switch water sources, and alludes to the significance of transitioning power back to the newly-elected Mayor of Flint, post-crisis. It offers a more complex view of the different levels of responsibility involved in the contamination:

“Snyder apologized this week to Flint residents for the state’s failures. Reports have pointed to errors at the city, state and federal level, but the bulk of the blame has been put on the state environmental-quality department (DEQ), whose director resigned at the end of last year over Flint’s water issues.”

This article is shorter than the other pieces I compare here. Even so, it offers a simple, clear, and not watered-down account of how the important events unfolded:

“Flint’s lead contamination problem came after a 2014 switch in water supplies to save money.”

 

“. . . officials did not take action until October 2015 after tests showed some tap water and children with elevated levels of lead, a neurotoxin that causes brain damage and other health issues.”

It also more pointedly highlights the shifting of decision-making power that Flint has been experiencing than the New York Times or Fox News pieces, stating:

“A state-appointed board on Friday unanimously recommended that some powers be returned to the Flint mayor as the financially strapped city transitions to local control from the state control that once included an emergency manager.”

When sources are referenced for the information in the article, they are either direct quotes from Snyder’s own comments during media interviews or speeches, or Karen Weaver’s direct quotes from a conference call she had with a state-appointed board managing the crisis. Other statements reference mainstream news media outlets, such as NBC News and MSNBC.

 

Flint’s Bottom Line: The Flint water crisis shows the human toll of running government like a business.

Published on 1/27/16 in Jacobin

Instead of asking what happened or who is to blame exactly, this article asks ‘what is to blame?’ and makes the case for Governor Snyder’s overall strategy of governance as the culprit in the crisis. It frames the situation in Flint as representative of broader political issues facing the nation, stating:

“the disaster in Flint isn’t a result of bureaucracy. It’s the deadly consequence of treating public goods as private commodities — an increasingly dominant feature of municipal life in America today.”

The author seems to assume that the audience has some prior knowledge on the events, but makes sure to paint a picture of the crisis for the purposes of the discussion, stating:

“The broad outlines of the Flint disaster are by now well-known. Nevertheless, because the Snyder administration and his hand-picked emergency manager in Flint have muddied the waters by pinning blame on Flint’s city council and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), it’s worth rehearsing the crucial details.”

It then offers details about the events that were not covered in the more mainstream reports:

“Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) failed to add a crucial corrosion control chemical — standard in large municipal systems — that prevents lead from leaching out of old service lines. The DEQ apparently advised Flint to follow a protocol designed for new water systems, despite the well-known fact that service lines in older cities like Flint are made with lead. (And what’s more, nobody in the cash-strapped city government even knows where the lead pipes are — the records are kept on handwritten paper index cards in an old cabinet at city hall.)”

 

” . . . E. coli bacteria and chlorine have also been found in the Flint River water.”

In making these statements, however, the piece does not make reference to the sources of its information. Rather, it focuses on a sort of “thinking out loud” process that attempts to understand how the contamination could have happened and what its occurrence might indicate about the political climate of the nation. One could argue that it also aims to evoke some motivation toward action in the reader. I think it has this in common with the Fox News article, which seems to paint a picture of who readers should be upset with. However, in this piece, the fact that it is meant to present opinions from a political standpoint is explicit.

“How much of this atrocity was due to incompetence, and how much of it was done to save money?  Of course, incompetence and cost-cutting go together: competence costs money, and cutting expenses is the single job description of Flint’s emergency manager. Indeed, cutting costs remains one of the Snyder administration’s highest and proudest priorities.”

Overall, this article was more of an editorial than the others, but it did offer details about the events that, if verified, would be important to highlight in more mainstream outlets.

The Big Picture

Of the four articles, I examined here, Al Jazeera America’s piece seems to be the most fact-based and descriptive while also offering the reader information about the nature of the social and political implications of the events. It avoids editorializing and the opinions of the author do not come through. The New York Times piece provides a more long-winded account of the events and illustrates the perspectives of the people affected by the crisis: Flint residents. It does engage in the more tangential discussion of the Presidential candidates’ responses, but this represents a small part of what it presents. The Fox News piece reads like a gossip column with clear anti-liberal bias. Key details of the story are omitted, such as the fact that Rick Snyder himself apologized for his role in the crisis and that the current Mayor of Flint was elected after the crisis and was only recently given power back after the state-appointed Emergency Manager was in control. The language it uses is much more conflict-oriented: “attack”, “accuse”, “lambaste”, “political football”. It presents what amounts to opinion and emotion as un-biased information and fact. The Jacobin piece presents itself as an editorial and it editorializes from a clear and transparent political standpoint. The publication describes itself as presenting from a socialist perspective, and this article criticizes  Governor Snyder’s style of governance from that standpoint.
Due to the nature of the readership of each of these publications, I would say that the New York Times and Fox News pieces are likely to have the most broad influence on the public’s understanding of the events.

One thought on “Flint, MI Water Crisis: A Media Analysis

  1. Caitlin, Great job critically analyzing the 4 articles you chose. Few of us go to the extent of examining what a news media outlet proclaims as its mission, nor studies of who their audiences are. The four pieces offer a sharp contrast. By now, it is rather easy to make a caricature out of Fox with its right-wing bent or NYT for its liberal bias. But I wonder how many can articulate the politics of Al Jazeera. Often you find much more critical views of US events from media outside the US and Al Jazeera seems to be finding a growing audience in the US. As I was researching the news to prepare for my appearance on Basic Black, it took me a while to get to the issue of how the emergency manager system works and its implications for democracy.

    Very good work on this first assignment!
    Penn

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