Washington's Water Woes and The Journalism of Scandal

On a very long commute this morning (more than 2 hours) I heard this long piece on NPR about excess lead levels in Washington D.C.'s drinking water. The piece was part one of a two part series on the lead problem.

Here's how NPR's website describes it.

News of dangerous levels of lead in Washington D.C.'s drinking water sparks an outcry from the community -- especially because city water officials knew about the problem and did little to warn the public. In the first of two reports, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling explains that weak federal laws regulating drinking water are to blame.

I am veering away from religion news today because this kind of reporting illustrates one of the biggest problems facing American journalism--journalists who are more interested in scandal and blame than in information and solutions.

This line "that weak federal laws regulating drinking water are to blame" is the problem. What could have been a great piece was turned into a typical scandal story that's all to common these days.

Why? "Weak federal laws" did not put lead into the water in Washington. Now today's story is only part one of a series, but aside from one reference to "old lead pipes" Zwerdling never explains where the lead comes from or how the problem could be fixed. Instead, he focuses on an expose of a federal environemtal law that is he says was compromised by politics.

How amazing. Politics shaped a law in Washington DC.

Zwerling never explains, for example--whether the problem is at Washington's water purification plant, in the ground water, or in the network of pipes that carry water to homes. Nor does he report on whether the high lead levels showed up in the standard blood tests many doctors do to check for lead levels. And there's no mention of how other cities deal with this issue.

I was jumping out of my seat as I drove along and yelling at the radio. It was almost as bad as watching Grady Little leave Pedro Martinez in during game seven of the American League Championship series last fall. I didn't get information--I got a reporter badgering some flunking at Washington's water utility about a public information campaign entitled "your water is safe" which was supposed to actually warn Washington residents about lead level.

I was left angry and worried after hearing the piece. I know where the damn lead is coming from--from lead water pipes that older cities like Washington and Chicago used for decades. From my days at Habitat for Humanity, I could estimate that running new water service would cost about $15,000 a house, and that's not addressing the main supply lines in the street. We are talking about a project that would cost upwards of 300 million dollars in a city like Washington.

Fortunately, the Chicago Tribune also ran a piece on the Washington water problem. It notes that Chicago adds phosphate to its supply which keeps lead from leaching into the water supply, a solution Washington could try.

NPR just wanted to fix blame and so didn't give the information that helps this story makes sense. Sure, the people who did not inform residents may have acted in a manner that was morally questionable. But they didn't make the problem. Probably 100 years of using lead water pipe did that. And the cost of fixing the problem could be enormous.

Is this an issue that I, and you, and anyone who get their water from lead pipe ought to worry about. Tune in tomorrow and see.

And sleep tight.


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