Pew Research Issues New Study on Flint Water Crisis

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Just Google the term “Flint Water Crisis” and you’ll generate 1.6 million hits.  It’s a story that has gripped the Nation since it first unfolded in 2015.  News spread like wildfire over social media and the mainstream news, and government officials who responded too slow quickly became overtaken by the story.

Even before the water crisis had started to unfold, residents of Flint had begun searching for information about their water at increased rates – largely preceding both government notice and heightened regional news coverage.

A new Pew Research Study offers fascinating insight into how the Flint crisis created greater public awareness of water and health issues far beyond the City limits.  But there is another interesting aspect to this story.  According to the study, “while the case study focuses on one particular news event, the overarching goals are larger: to begin exploring what aggregated search behavior can tell us about how news spreads in our increasingly fractured information environment, as well as about how the public’s focus shifts over the course of a developing news story.”  It’s more an academic piece that helps us better understand how the public interest in this story related to government’s response and how the public gets its information on public health crises such as Flint.

The take homes are,

  1. Overall there is a strong connection between increases in public search activity and key events and news attention, but initially, (in graphic below) local searches about what was happening increased before external government action or increased media attention – i.e. this was an issue among the public, the public sensed something was wrong before gov’t acted publically or news coverage increased.
  2. Eventually Americans outside of the Michigan area began searching for issues related to the Flint case. And the increases were not just in the category of news about what was happening in Flint, but also in the categories of personal and public water safety, which suggests that a local event with public implications can trigger people outside that area to relate it to their own situation, in this case asking questions about the water in their area or what signs they should look for.

The implications of this study reinforce why government agencies and environmental groups are increasingly turning to and trolling social media as the new and alternative way to identify the next environmental or public health crisis.