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Q&A: Grad gives first-hand look at Flint water crisis

 

Protesters chant outside of a meeting where city and state officials announce an action plan to deal with lead levels in Flint's drinking water on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, at Kettering University in Flint, Mich. The action plan includes immediate testing of water in Flint's public schools and providing water filters for concerned residents. // Courtesy of Danny Miller | MLive.com/ The Flint Journal
Protesters chant outside of a meeting where city and state officials announce an action plan to deal with lead levels in Flint’s drinking water on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, at Kettering University in Flint, Mich. The action plan includes immediate testing of water in Flint’s public schools and providing water filters for concerned residents. // Photo courtesy of Danny Miller | MLive.com/ The Flint Journal

After graduating from Western in June 2015, photojournalist Danny Miller began interning for The Flint Journal in July. Miller witnessed the Journal newsroom in the midst of covering the continuing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

After extremely high levels of lead have been found contaminating the Flint River, citizens have been told to only drink bottled water.

According to an MSNBC timeline, the complaints regarding the water quality started in May 2014. On Friday, Jan. 29. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a $28 million supplemental budget to address a fix for the crisis, according to the City of Flint website.

Miller spent six months interning for The Flint Journal and is currently an intern at The Arizona Republic.

 

Q: How much did the water crisis affect your internship in Flint?

A: Essentially, I had some background and had been following a bit of the coverage that was going on before my time there, but didn’t understand the specifics. Then I moved there and was living in the city, so I was thrown into understanding exactly what the problems were. A decent amount of the coverage while working on the daily beat and the paper revolved around the water crisis, especially in the October months when a lot was developing.

Q: Where was the publication at in the story when you arrived?

A: The Journal had been covering pretty much every step of the way.  I did a very small sliver of the coverage that went on there … documenting how people were reacting in the community and how the news was developing.

There were dedicated reporters who had been covering it from the very beginning. The chief photojournalist there has been visually documenting what’s going on in the community revolving around the water crisis [and] what’s developing. They followed it since the switch to the Flint River back in April 2014.

Q: When were the main developments of the story?

A: In the fall, that’s when a lot was developing. That was when the first tests came out when the doctor from Hurley Medical Center came out with research showing elevated lead levels in kids that were drinking Flint water.

Then researchers from Virginia Tech came out with research that explained that the water was far too corrosive to the pipes and the lead was leaking into the water.

Q: What was your coverage focused on?

A: I was covering a lot of press conferences, as well as some protests outside city hall.  I did a little bit of coverage with people and organizations donating and passing out water filters, as well as private individuals who were doing water bottle drives and passing those out in neighborhoods.

Flint residents protest the water quality in the city on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, outside Flint City Hall in Flint, Mich. Tests have shown elevated lead levels in the drinking water after Flint began drawing and treating water from the Flint River. Danny Miller | MLive.com // The Flint Journal
Flint residents protest the water quality in the city on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, outside Flint City Hall in Flint, Mich. Tests have shown elevated lead levels in the drinking water after Flint began drawing and treating water from the Flint River. // Photo courtesy of Danny Miller | MLive.com / The Flint Journal

Q: Could you see any discoloration in your tap water?

A:  Despite what some people believe about Flint water, it depends on where you are. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of the water being yellow, that might be coming out of people’s pipes in different areas around the city.  At the apartment where I was living there wasn’t any discoloration.

Q: What was the most challenging part of covering the story?

A: I don’t think there was necessarily one event that was a huge hurdle that I had to jump over.  I think as a journalist in general it’s always challenging to make sure that you’re listening and understanding everything that’s in front of you. As a visual journalist, there’s always a challenge in finding a way to document that and present it to a larger audience.

Q: How did you and the community go about staying hydrated?

A:  From my arrival in Flint, I drank bottled water for the entire six months that I lived there. At work I’d drink out of a filtered system.

But it’s not, in terms of looking at the issue, so much a personal thing for me. There are people who live in Flint who can’t afford to buy bottled water every month; it’s really expensive. Now there’s national funding as well as state and local funding that’s giving and passing out bottled water, especially to those areas that can’t afford it. [That] is great, but that should’ve been going on last fall, when there was significant evidence that there was lead in the water.

Q: What was showering like?

A: For me it wasn’t overwhelmingly different to shower there for the most part. My skin was very dry after showering. That was the biggest, most notable difference. There are some claims out there that other people have experienced showering differently.

Q: How would describe the character of Flint?

A: Flint itself is an incredible city. I loved every second that I had living there and documenting the community. It was a really amazing community to be apart of and it’s a really interesting city. It was a city that had double the populace it has now back when [General Motors Co.] was a major industry in the city.  

When a lot of the GM industry pulled out, a lot of the population did too.  Flint’s fairly large for how many people are living in it. Flint, like any other city, has a lot of issues going on politically and socioeconomically. In terms of my personal experience, it was a really cool community. I’ve never been in a city where there’s so much focus on community.

Alonzo Fields, custodian at Freeman Elementary School helps unload a delivery of water bottles donated by Lanice Lawson, right, a Davison resident who started a GoFundMe.com page to raise money to bring bottled water to Flint kids on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, at Freeman Elementary School in Flint, Mich. At a news conference on Thursday, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant announced that water at three Flint schools tested above 15 parts per billion for lead -- the federal safety standard. Freeman had a sample that tested over six times the federal limit for lead, Wyant said. // Photo courtesy of Danny Miller | MLive.com / The Flint Journal
Alonzo Fields, custodian at Freeman Elementary School helps unload a delivery of water bottles donated by Lanice Lawson, right, a Davison resident who started a GoFundMe.com page to raise money to bring bottled water to Flint kids on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, at Freeman Elementary School in Flint, Mich. At a news conference on Thursday, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant announced that water at three Flint schools tested above 15 parts per billion for lead — the federal safety standard. Freeman had a sample that tested over six times the federal limit for lead, Wyant said. // Photo courtesy of Danny Miller | MLive.com / The Flint Journal

Q:  What’s the latest development in the story?

A: There’s a lot more national funding that’s coming in, which is good. In terms of the community there’s more access to bottled water. There were members of the National Guard who were passing out bottled water in Flint. It’s become more available, rather than just community members donating that water.

They’re still working through replacing the old infrastructure that’s leaking lead into the water.

Q: What’s been your favorite assignment so far? Why?

A: That’s hard. I don’t know if it’s necessarily about one assignment. For me it’s more about the experiences that I had there.

For me as a journalist, and why I’m so jacked into journalism is the experiencing of different things every day, and then also experiencing different people’s lives, understanding that and telling those stories.  

The six months as a whole was a very important period of growth as a journalist.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring photojournalist?

A: My biggest piece of advice is work really hard and stay dedicated to not only your own personal vision and growth, but also the community that’s around you.

 

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