Steve Carmody sometimes feels uneasy about the praise.
Carmody is a Flint-based reporter for Michigan Radio, the state’s leading public radio service, which was among the earliest news outlets to report seriously on concerns that the city’s residents were being poisoned by lead leaching from their water pipes—the result of a switch to a new water source in April 2014. Michigan Radio reported on a crucial Environmental Protection Agency internal memo that laid out the concerns in July 2015, tracked each new development as the scope of the problem became clear last fall, and, in December, produced an hour-long documentary that has become one of the leading accounts of the crisis.
For those efforts, Michigan Radio has won applause from listeners and industry peers. Carmody is proud of what the service has done—but he also thinks about what might have been different.
“It just gnaws on me that when people were saying they can’t drink this water in May or June of 2014, I was taking, ‘Don’t worry, it’s safe’ as an answer” from state officials,” he said in recent interview. “It just sticks in my craw. I should’ve seen this earlier. That will bother me for the rest of my career.”
It’s a lesson worth taking seriously, and one for journalists to reflect on anytime a community keeps saying, despite official assurances, that something is wrong. In retrospect, Michigan Radio, like other news outlets, might have pushed harder, earlier, against claims from state environmental officials that the water was fine.
But it’s also fair to say that in its coverage of the story, Michigan Radio has staked a claim for itself as an increasingly important player in the state’s media ecosystem. That influential reporting stems from the outlet’s growth in recent years—and it has raised its ambitions for the journalism it will produce in the future.
It’s not that long ago that public radio in Michigan was primarily classical music. When Vincent Duffy, Michigan Radio’s news director, joined the outlet in 2007, there were “roughly five people on any given day gathering news,” he says. Now there is more than twice that; in total, 27 people work in content roles, including reporters, digital producers, and on-air hosts. In addition to the usual slate of national public radio fare, the service produces original programming like Stateside, The Environment Report, and State of Opportunity. (I’ve occasionally been a guest on-air.) Some of the editorial growth comes from moving around existing positions, but the station’s annual operating budget has also grown, in part due to rising audience support. Today, it’s about $6.5 million, with nearly two-thirds coming from listener contributions.
The on-air programming reaches about 450,000 listeners each week via transmitters in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Flint—a blue-collar city of about 100,000 people, where the listening audience is by far the smallest. “Some of that has to do with it having a smaller population,” Duffy said, “but some is that an audience is more likely to listen to public radio if they are college-educated, and there’s just a lower percentage of college-educated people in Genesee County [where Flint is located], which probably makes us less appealing.”
It just sticks in my craw. I should’ve seen this earlier. That will bother me for the rest of my career.
Whatever the reason, that didn’t stop the Flint water story from becoming a priority for Michigan Radio—though when the first glaring sign of a major public health concern arrived, Carmody wasn’t the only one who had a hard time believing the severity of the situation. Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, had obtained the draft EPA report, and in early July he shared it with the public radio service in hopes of bringing it to a broader audience. The memo faulted the state’s methods for measuring lead levels, explained why the decision not to apply “corrosion-control” techniques created risks, and relayed almost unfathomably high concentrations of lead in one home.
“The day we had it, there was a disagreement in the newsroom,” Duffy recalled. “Some wanted to get it out right away, and others in the newsroom were saying, ‘These numbers can’t be right. This can’t actually be happening that the lead levels are this high in a municipal water system.’ Turned out that actually was the case.”
Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith reported on the memo a few days later. (“Let me start here—anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” a spokesman for the state environmental department told her, a line that has since become infamous.) But it was in the fall, as independent testing led by a Virginia Tech scientist and blood-lead analyses by a Flint pediatrician made the scale of the crisis clear, that the newsroom really pivoted to heavy coverage. Carmody reported the daily news, but when feedback made it clear that audiences were having a difficult time piecing the whole story together, the outlet decided to do the documentary. Smith, who covers West Michigan but had already done her share of FOIA requests for the Flint story, led the reporting, with support from web producer Mark Brush, environment reporter Rebecca Williams, Carmody, and editor Sarah Hulett. The station also paid for Smith to travel to Virginia Tech for interviews.
“Not Safe to Drink,” which focuses on Flint mother and citizen activist LeeAnne Walters, put a human face on a complex story, making good use of what Smith calls “the intimacy of the audio narrative.” It aired locally in mid-December, and, thanks to a partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, it was broadcast nationally that same month. Michigan Radio’s online traffic in January more than tripled from the average, Duffy said, and “the only thing we can attribute that to is… people are still sharing our documentary. Even though it’s dated now, with quotes from individuals who are no longer working in their jobs.”
It also helps that Michigan Radio’s digital presence is better than the norm for state public media. On average, the website gets about 300,000 unique visitors a month; what began as an archive of the outlet’s best work is now often the home for stories that haven’t been broadcast yet. “We’re not scooping ourselves,” Duffy said, because the website reaches a distinct audience. With a digital-first policy—“the story isn’t done until the web story is done,” Duffy says—the station was in position to deliver online coverage featuring numbers and timelines that don’t translate easily on air.
While Michigan Radio started out front with the Flint water story, it’s been difficult at times to sustain the pace. Despite the newsroom’s growth—and the continuing staff decline at the state’s newspapers—the big papers can still put more people on a resource-intensive story that’s dominating the news, like the recent release of thousands of emails obtained from similar FOIA requests on the same day. “We do catch up there,” Duffy says.
I’d like in three years to say, ‘Remember the Flint water crisis? That is what started all this other incredible work.’
One other consequence of the coverage: a shift in the relationship with Governor Rick Snyder’s office, at least for a time. The office “has not been pleased with all our coverage,” said Duffy, referring in particular to elements of the documentary, and an accompanying reporters notebook posted online. After the documentary aired, he said, the governor’s office indicated it would communicate over email but would no longer agree to recorded phone interviews, including after the State of the State address in January.
I asked Dave Murray, Gov. Snyder’s press secretary, about this. “We had some concerns that we talked to them about, and we’re working on it together,” he said. In a follow-up email, he added: “We have great respect for the journalists at Michigan Radio. The organization’s coverage of the Flint Water Crisis has been thorough and impressive, and we appreciate the work the reporters there have done to bring attention to the problems at all three levels of government as well as the recovery efforts that are underway.” He pointed out that he frequently talks with public radio reporters in Lansing, who work for a capitol news network that serves stations across the state, and says that he recently spoke with Michigan Radio’s arts and education reporter.
The Flint story, of course, is hardly over. Despite remediation efforts, lead levels in the water remain high; scores of children have been exposed, putting them at risk of developmental impairments and other consequences; and complex questions about government accountability are yet to be resolved. The Michigan Radio team balances getting to other big statewide stories—one of the prisoners released last month from Iran was from Flint, which Carmody reported about, while Smith covered the Grand Rapids mayoral election—and still staying on top of developments in the water story.
“For many of us, it’s seven days a week, almost every waking hour, trying to stay on top of the Flint story,” Duffy said. “We’ve had discussions on how long to continue this and when we scale back and partner with someone else or reach out to NPR or something. For six people to wake up and do nothing but Flint, it takes its toll.”
That said, he’s hopeful that this coverage is the start of a new era of important journalism at Michigan Radio—and that the Flint coverage can be leveraged into resources that will help support it.
“What I’d hate to have happen is three years from now we look back and say, ‘Remember the Flint water crisis? That’s the best news we’ve ever done.’” Duffy said. “I’d like in three years to say, ‘Remember the Flint water crisis? That is what started all this other incredible work.’ We’ve shown ourselves what we’re capable of and the talent we have in our newsroom.”
Carmody, the reporter in Flint, points to a more immediate hope: that the lead crisis in Flint will be solved. But he’s looking to the future, too.
In about sixteen years, he said, he expects to retire from journalism. “I know on my very last day, I’m going to do a story about Flint water. Not because it’s my last day, and I feel like I have to, or because it’s an anniversary, but because it’s still going to be hurting people in this community sixteen years from now.”