Newark, ‘the next Flint,’ and water-crisis coverage

Newark, New Jersey, has had dangerous levels of lead in its water for some time. In 2016, officials turned off water fountains in dozens of public schools there; the same year, a statement from school officials dated lead-contamination concerns to “at least the early 2000s.” Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced a lawsuit against the city for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. Lead levels in the city’s drinking water still exceed federal limits; recent efforts to filter lead from the water have been insufficient, and thousands of residents have been advised to rely on bottled water.

“It’s not necessarily an exciting story until you have the images of a mass bottled-water distribution program—until you have these very visual points of trucks and people waiting in line for water,” Karen Yi, a reporter for NJ.com and The Star-Ledger, says. 

As Newark’s water crisis has commanded greater attention from the press, coverage has drawn numerous comparisons to Flint, Michigan, whose well-known water crisis began in 2014. Yi says the 2016 decision by Newark schools to shut down drinking fountains attracted national-media attention, but also attributes that coverage to Flint, whose crisis continued to generate national headlines two years after it began. 

In recent headlines and stories, many news outlets have asked whether Newark might become “the next Flint.” A recent Wired story began:

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A US city is facing a public health crisis, after years of denying that it had a problem with lead in its drinking water supply. In 2016, that would have been a reference to Flint, Michigan. This month, it’s Newark, New Jersey.

The Flint comparisons aren’t confined to Newark. The Wired headline decries “the persistent crisis of lead in water,” and names Pittsburgh as another city where recent concerns over lead contamination have spanned years. A recent MuckRock story by Julia Rock about Rhode Island’s ongoing lead-poisoning problem mentioned the national media attention to Flint and Newark alongside the relative lack of attention to that state.

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“Nobody wants to be considered ‘the next Flint,’” Michael Warren, an environmental journalist for those outlets, says. “It’s not like the city or the state were volunteering much information that [made] the water seem less than perfect.” Reporters for NJ.com and the Star Ledger say that Newark officials called the water “safe to drink,” effectively muddying the narrative as it progressed. Information on elevated lead levels in drinking water came primarily through public records or court documents, Warren and his colleagues say.

I have not thought about pH since my AP chemistry class, and so I had to go back and be like, ‘Wait, how does it work? What does a pH of eight mean? What does it mean when pH levels drop?’

Water crises are often portrayed in coverage as management problems, rather than infrastructure problems, says journalist Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. “The larger issue, which journalists should focus on, is that we have lead plumbing infrastructure throughout our drinking water system in America, which means that there will be lead in our drinking water—even in wealthy communities,” says Clark. 

The decline of full-time local reporting positions, Clark adds, means that reporters such as Yi often need to write stories outside of their areas of expertise. Yi, a government reporter with no formal training in environmental journalism, has covered Newark’s water crisis since she joined NJ.com and the Star Ledger in 2017. She estimates it took her nearly a month to understand what went wrong with Newark’s water system. 

Early on, Yi says, she talked for hours with scientists and water chemists to understand the complexities of water treatments, and read hundreds of pages of reports in order to write stories that readers could understand. “I have not thought about pH since my AP chemistry class, and so I had to go back and be like, ‘Wait, how does it work? What does a pH of eight mean? What does it mean when pH levels drop?’” 

Reporters know well the perils of parachute journalism, which can easily oversimplify and misrepresent the day-to-day realities of a place and its people. Still, says Jessica Mazzola, a managing producer for NJ.com who reported on the lead crisis before it made national news, increased press attention can encourage scrutiny and perhaps expedite solutions. An August 18 story by Yi noted that city efforts to replace lead service lines would take eight years; a week later, as national media attention grew, officials reduced that timeline to three years.

Of course, the national press can’t be everywhere at once. “It’s kind of how it works, right?” Mazzola says. “There aren’t many places that the national media is in all the time. It is one of the things that I like about working for local press—you are the people who are in the trenches every day.”

Might there be an advantage to joining Newark’s water crisis to Flint’s in news reports? Overlapping water crises could enable newsrooms to learn from each other, and provide more journalists with examples of what it looks like in practice to hold officials accountable, says Meaghan Parker, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Clark says she still keeps a Google Alert related to Flint’s water, “and it is fascinating how often people use that city’s name as a way to get people to pay attention.”

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Zainab Sultan is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.