January 28, 2016

How does an entire country overlook one of the most outrageous instances of government failing its people to occur this generation?

One meticulous, thorough and unerring story at a time.

James Warren, chief media writer for Poynter, wrote a column Friday that suggests news media bears a share of the responsibility for the lead poisoning scandal that has afflicted the city of Flint and engulfed the state government that caused it to happen.

And he quotes two sources — one of them is a former, longtime environmental writer for our company — who suggest local journalists were lax in following the story, or too inexperienced to know how to handle it, due in part to cuts in staffing in newsrooms.

Those are predictable and convenient criticisms. Also, lazy and incorrect.

Journalists from The Flint Journal have doggedly reported the Flint water story blow by excruciating blow, for more than two years. From the politics to the public health implications to the impact on residents of this hurting city, there has been no development that has gone unreported or unexplained.

More than 500 stories have been written by reporters at The Journal since January 2014, chronicling the descent into this public health hell. There have been revelations, forceful editorials and explanatory journalism. The anguish of residents and local elected leaders, all powerless under the governor’s series of appointed emergency managers, was front and center in all of the coverage.

See also: Rachel Maddow heads to Flint

We never minced words, nor pulled punches.

So what was missing? Anyone outside of Michigan caring before September 2015, when a doctor sounded alarms about rising lead levels in children’s blood. And let’s be honest, there were plenty in Michigan who had little concern about one more mess being piled onto a downtrodden city.

All of that water crisis coverage, with rising levels of drama, political intrigue and human pathos? It had less total readership over 12 months than the Michigan-Michigan State football game. A routine weather story on our site is read by three times as many people as a Flint water story. And that’s even after national attention was stoked in the past month.

That’s no reflection on the importance of reporting that story, or our commitment to it. But let’s be honest about the assertion that the national media just “discovered” an under-reported scandal and brought it to an eager public.

The biggest headline in all of our Flint water coverage is a multimedia slideshow, “How the Flint water crisis emerged” — it’s had nearly 1 million pageviews in the past two weeks. But that explanatory piece of public service was created and originally posted in October.

This crisis was there all along, and people chose to look away until Rachel Maddow, CBS News, The New York Times and others saw the flares rising out of Michigan.

Warren allows his source to rue that “a well-placed FOIA several months ago … may have earned some mainstream news publication a Pulitzer nomination.” That’s easy punditry. Flint news leader Bryn Mickle and his news reporters — notably Ron Fonger — have filed dozens of FOIAs to lay bare the decision-making in the water debacle.

A recent restructuring across our company, cited in Warren’s Poynter piece, had no bearing on our ability or will to cover this story. We eliminated one position in the Flint newsroom — an entertainment writer.

In a crisis of this magnitude, finding those at fault is a necessary and apportioning blame is to be expected. Could the media — local or national — have done more, reacted sooner, applied more pressure? Of course.

They all are here now, hounding public officials, combing through documents, telling the stories of a battered populace. That journalistic force is welcome, as this story is far from over and the compounding of efforts will get us more quickly to the truth.

But MLive/The Flint Journal has been here from the start, and we’ll be here when they leave. We aren’t borrowing this story, we own it. To suggest otherwise is continued evidence of people adopting easy conclusions, and not caring enough to learn what is really happening in Flint.

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John Hiner is the vice president of content at Michigan's MLive Media Group. He served as executive editor of the Flint Journal from 2009 to…
John Hiner

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