Insights From Last Week’s Flint/Detroit Media Coverage

There were at least three interesting angles that came up for me in the latest edition of On The Media, including an interview with the reporter who helped surface the Flint Michigan lead-laced water supply.

BIG STORIES SURFACE SLOWLY

First and foremost, there’s the notion that might seem unexpected to outside obvservers that journalists sometimes don’t jump all over big stories sitting in front of them.

Asked why it took so long for commercial and national media to pick up the story, the Flint report responded: “Sometimes the bigger the story is, the longer it takes to get traction. Accusing the government of poisoning a town is a pretty significant charge to be making.”

The observation sounds right and is sort of chilling, if you think about it.

What other stories are out there, hiding in plain sight, too big to cover?

In Chicago, the $20 million SUPES contract scandal sat out there for 2 years after Catalyst Chicago reported it before it won widespread and national attention. 

CAUGHT BY SURPRISE

Another reason why the Flint story is so interesting and relevant to education is that I’ve had the feeling that the Detroit story — dilapidated schools, lack of pay for teachers, teacher sick-outs — has been covered only belatedly and thinly in the days leading up to last week’s protests.

It’s not so much that the story didn’t get covered when it finally broke last week: The AP covered the story (Detroit Schools in Session After Teacher Sickout Shutdown). The Chicago Tribune linked the story to President Obama’s visit (Most of Detroit’s public schools close amid teacher sick-out), which was the DFT’s intention (according to the story).

CNN got to it, too (Detroit schools want judge to end teacher sickouts). EdWeek (Detroit District Seeks Restraining Order, Injunction Against Teachers). The WSJ (Schools in Detroit, Chicago Seek State Help) Even The Seventy Four covered the story. CBS Evening News, the Washington Post (Clinton on Detroit schools), the New York Times (Crumbling, Destitute Schools Threaten Detroit’s Recovery), and others did, too.

It’s more that the situation was clearly developing, and yet it didn’t seem to have gotten much if any attention before then. Local outlets seem to have been on the story all along, such as the Detroit Free Press, where Ann@AnnZaniewski (covers Detroit schools), Lori Higgins (our K-12 reporter), and John Wisely (an enterprise reporter) have written a lot. 

There’s not really all that much in the archive from EdWeek for Detroit Schools leading up to last week, for example. And a quick look back at my daily AM News roundup over the past several months reveals only a smattering of pieces about Detroit not all of them related to the dismal conditions or teacher dissatisfaction.

Of course, the problem could be on my end — faulty radar, missing stories that were out there. But I keep having the sense that important education stories are sneaking up on me, and that when it comes to these kinds of breaking news stories education news is sort of broken.

This seems especially so when the story doesn’t fit an easy narrative. In Detroit, for example, readers and reporters might sympathize with the teachers and students who have to go to dilapidated mushroom-friendly schools, or with parents and taxpayers and students who might object to teachers skirting the law and forcing schools to shut their doors.

There’s also the reality that the Detroit situation hasn’t been dramatic or fast-moving in the sense of an immediate crisis or change of circumstances, and that Detroit is one of several big American school systems that have been in distress for so long that some media fatigue may have set in.

UNCONVENTIONAL MEDIA OUTLET

Last but not least, the Flint story is interesting because, according to OTM and others, the journalist who led the way in reporting the story (Curt Guyette) was working for the Michigan chapter of the ACLU — not a traditional media outlet — and funded through a grant from the Ford Foundation.

The Ford Foundation isn’t new to supporting media-related efforts, of course. They’ve given money to nonprofit news outlets and even to commercial ones like the LA Times. But giving money to the ACLU rather than a traditional media outlet. Asked about the arrangement, a Ford Foundation staffer emailed that “I believe it is a unique situation among our grantees, but I will dig a bit deeper and see what I can find for you.”

Other examples of private funding going to nontraditional outlets for journalism that I can come up with off the top of my head include the Better Government Association in Chicago, which is run by a former broadcast journalist and has hired several veteran journalists (including former Catalyst Chicago reporter Sarah Karp) to watchdog City Hall.

Related posts: What About the Ford Foundation Funding the LA Times?What The Gates Foundation’s Learned About Funding Education Journalim.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.