A dose of transparency in Flint

Coached by an acclaimed journalist, two students travel to the front lines of environmental disasters to examine the human impact of government opacity. Welcome to public service journalism as taught by the innovative O’Brien Fellowship.

By Edgar Mendez

Sitting at the University of Michigan-Flint campus food court in March with just a backpack, laptop and a university-issued camera and recorder, Devi Shastri, then a Marquette junior majoring in both biomedical science and journalism, was scared.

After all, Shastri had less than three days to spend in Flint, a city she’d never set foot in, and the scene of a water contamination crisis that generated round-the-clock news coverage detailing government cover-ups, mismanagement and issues of racism and classism. But she needed to find her own story, and she had to do it fast.

“Where do I go? Who do I talk to and how do I meet people who are willing to talk about what happened to them?” she thought.

Shastri grabbed her cell phone and called Miranda Spivack, a gritty, award- winning reporter who spent decades covering government and exposing corruption for The Washington Post. Spivack spent the 2015–16 academic year as one of four professional journalists engaged in Marquette’s esteemed O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. Spivack, paired with Shastri and other students, conducted an independent project examining transparency in the dealings of local and state governments.

The specific advice Spivack provided that day may not have been especially memorable, but it was exactly what Shastri needed to hear. “She’s telling me what she’s got, and I tell her, ‘Well, that could lead to this. Or maybe you could go and look for that,’” recalls Spivack. Schooling the young journalist on the patient, driven art of shoe-leather reporting, Spivack pushed Shastri to keep digging to find her story.

What Shastri uncovered at the eleventh hour was a town hall meeting hosted by newly-elected mayor Karen Weaver, and featuring Assistant U.S. Surgeon General Michelle Dunwoody, an Obama administration designee sent to help Flint of cials through the crisis. Shastri sat in a crowd alongside appalled residents who questioned Dunwoody and other officials about why they’d been drinking lead-contaminated water, how to get tested for exposure and when they’d get justice.

After some searching in Flint, Shastri found a gymnasium where residents prayed before a town hall meeting with federal officials.
“The big thing that stuck out to me — and hurt my heart — was the people there don’t trust the government, and why should they?” Shastri recalls. “It was the lack of government transparency that caused the crisis in the rst place.”

Shastri is one of nearly 60 Marquette students who have partnered with O’Brien Fellows since the program launched in 2012.

The fellowship allows reporters from newsrooms across the country — including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,The Seattle Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun — to work on a public-service journalism project that exposes problems, seeks solutions and has the potential to change policies and even lives.

Over nine months, they also mentor Marquette students. “Fellows trying to do the best journalism of their careers while students learn their craft at the feet of these great journalists” is how Herbert Lowe, the program’s director and the college’s professional in residence, describes it.

Communication graduate student Theresa Soley, a two-time O’Brien intern, also worked on the transparency project with Spivack, comparing government response to a pesticide spill in the Sacramento River in California 25 years ago to a recent wreck that dumped ethanol into the Mississippi River near LaCrosse, Wis.

As part of her reporting, Soley tracked down longtime officials of the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, who recalled going to great lengths to keep residents safe from environmental and health risks related to the spill. Residents living in homes bordering the spill impact zone, however, recalled the series of events differently.

“They were still unhappy with how the government dealt with the incident and questioned how their long-term health might have been impacted,” Soley says. Since the Sacramento spill, transparency related to spills continues to be an issue, says Soley, who spent days poring over the Coast Guard database on chemical spillage into waterways.

Other O’Brien Fellowship interns have reported from China, Nevada,Texas, Florida, California, Washington, D.C., and Belgium, reports Lowe.

“The students have become, if not experts, much more aware of the topics they’re covering while working with excellent journalists on a long-term major story,” he notes, adding that some students have also parlayed their O’Brien experiences into internships and ultimately jobs with nationally recognized newspapers.

At the very least, students learn the amount of investigating that goes into projects like these and how bigger stories flow from smaller beginnings.

“Sometimes the story unfolds in front of you and sometimes you have to go find it,” says Spivack, who recently published O’Brien-supported pieces on a resident journalistic watchdog in Kent County, Md., and on the lack of transparency within that state’s health care system.

Shastri not only found her story, but also her voice in Flint. Fittingly, she had to be as transparent as possible at the meeting, as the residents demanded justice for being kept in the dark about the hazards lurking in their drinking water.

“I had to convince them that I wasn’t there to exploit their pain, that I was there to help them tell their story,” Shastri relates. “They were the real-world victims of a lack of transparency, which is what we’ve been looking at during this project.”

Read the entire 2016 issue of Comm, the annual magazine of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette and explore 100 Years of Students Delivering the News.