Flint residents searched for water info before news coverage intensified: Study

Image by Ben Gordon, via Flickr.

Before the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, made headlines, residents suspected something was wrong.

A new Pew Research Center study using proprietary Google search data shows people in the city searched the web for information related to the water supply before their government and the local media recognized there was a problem. The study shows how real-time mining of digital data may improve public health response times and media coverage during a crisis.

Flint, which is 70 miles north of Detroit, had tainted water for at least 18 months after state-appointed financial managers decided to save money by switching the city’s water supply from Detroit-area water to the Flint River in spring 2014. The plan was to use this system until a pipeline from Lake Huron could be completed. However, system managers failed to treat the river water with an anti-corrosive agent, exposing the city’s residents to harmful contaminants and lead. Water quality has improved since Flint returned to the Detroit system, The Associated Press reported. But residents still are advised to use filters until a project to replace compromised pipes into individual homes is completed.

To look into the public health crisis, Pew received special access to Google search data more nuanced than is publicly available. With anonymized data, researchers identified more than 2,700 different search phrases associated with contaminated drinking water that range from specific (such as “Flint water EPA,” to more general (such as “why is my water brown”). The data covers a period from January 5, 2014, through July 2, 2016.

 The searches serve as a “proxy for public interest” during the developing crisis, Pew suggests. As conversations around the crisis developed, search terms evolved. By studying how they changed over time, we might get a sense of how people consume major news events.

“We chose the Flint water crisis as a case study because it had impact at the personal, community, and political levels,” Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew Research Center, said in a statement. She added that data “can shed light on the public’s response to news and events.”

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Here are five major takeaways from the study:

Residents searched for information about the water before the crisis unfolded.

Researchers found that Flint residents began searching for information about their water more frequently in mid-July 2014. By August, searches in the city and the state reached their second-highest peak within the period being studied. This all occurred four weeks ahead of the first boil advisory issued in Flint, on August 16.

Meanwhile, during these four weeks, local news outlets maintained the same amount of coverage they had been giving the issue since the beginning of 2014: one or two stories per week. “This suggests that information may have spread among local residents, largely before the news industry or local governments had turned increased attention to the issue,” according to Pew.

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People searched for information when news broke.

Out of 24 moments of intense search activity seen during the period of the study, most happened when major events took place. For example, when the city issued a lead warning on September 25 and a public health emergency on October 1, searches around public health rose enormously. Additionally, data shows that media coverage followed suit. This suggests that public search interest follows major events and increased news coverage.

One weakness of the study is that it uses weekly data, meaning researchers are unable to tell if spikes in searches occurred in the beginning of the week, the end of the week, or on a particular day. Pew used weekly data because it deemed it more useful than daily searches, which provided less granularity.

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Media coverage and events didn’t always lead to heightened search activity.

While most of the heavy search periods occurred when there was a major development and a lot of news coverage, some events didn’t cause an increase in searches. For instance, Flint issued another warning about the tap water (on January 2), and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder approved $2 million in infrastructure improvements (on February 3). Although news outlets published more stories during this period, there was no rise in search activity.  

“One possible explanation for the lack of heightened search activity during these instances is that, aside from the funding announcement, many of these events were incremental changes to existing storylines rather than major developments,” according to Pew.

 

Searches reflect how interest evolved.

In the beginning, searches were about facts around the crisis. People looked up phrases such as “Flint water crisis articles” and “Flint water update” between May and August 2014. Then, in 2015, people began searching terms related to how the water crisis would affect their health, such as “lead water absorb skin” and public health-related terms like “water pollution causes.” In 2016, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard and President Obama announced $5 million in aid, people began looking into political aspects.

 

Twitter activity mirrored national search activity.

The number of tweets around the crisis was low until 2016. During the week of January 17, 2016 (when Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint), there was an enormous increase in tweets about Flint. The number of posts on the platform went from about 140,000 to more than 400,000.

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We condensed the study, but you can see the full report here.

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.