The escalating water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, is a clear example of environmental injustice and environmental racism, but national TV news largely failed to contextualize it this way. As the crisis in Jackson was coming to the nation’s attention, from August 29 through August 31, corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, and all original programming on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News covered the story for approximately 4 and 1/2 hours. However, only 1 hour and 8 minutes of that coverage discussed how the current crisis fits into a larger pattern in which low income communities and communities of color, such as Jackson's large Black community, are disproportionately affected by environmental issues.
In short, the impacts were reported, but the injustices largely were not.
The unfolding water crisis in Jackson is a complicated humanitarian disaster buttressed by “decades of failure” driven by environmental racism, economic decline, and political mismanagement. Now that Jackson has the national media’s attention, national TV news shows must do a much better job of applying an environmental justice lens to the story and demand accountability from those responsible for the degraded air, land, and water that disproportionately harms vulnerable communities across the country.
Broadcast and cable news aired 94 segments about the Jackson water crisis, but only 15 of them applied an environmental justice lens to the story
Under a boil-water notice since July 30 because the city’s drinking water was contaminated, Jackson took another blow to its water infrastructure in last week’s torrential rains, which caused the Pearl River to flood. In addition to temporarily displacing residents, the flooding also contributed to a complete system failure at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. With the water supply for the 180,000 residents of Jackson considered “entirely unsafe to drink” indefinitely, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency on August 29.
National TV news networks, except for Fox News, have covered the crisis robustly. From August 29 through August 31, corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, and original programming on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC covered the story for a total of 4 hours and 33 minutes.
Broadcast TV news shows aired 35 minutes of combined coverage. NBC led with 14 minutes, followed by CBS with 11 minutes, and ABC with 10 minutes. CBS and ABC each aired one segment that covered the water crisis through an environmental justice lens, which were 2 minutes and 3 minutes long, respectively.
On cable, CNN led total overall coverage, airing 2 hours and 38 minutes compared to MSNBC’s 1 hour and 25 minutes. MSNBC aired the most individual environmental justice segments with 8, accounting for 29 minutes of coverage, but CNN’s 5 segments that included discussion of environmental justice accounted for 34 minutes. Fox aired a paltry 6 minutes of coverage about the Jackson water crisis and did not air any segments mentioning environmental justice.
A strong environmental justice story must do much more than provide brief demographic mentions; the best segments provide important context about how and why the residents of Jackson are dealing with a failed water system. Among the broadcast networks, the August 31 episode of CBS Evening News stood out by detailing how Jackson has long struggled with its water infrastructure and noting that the city’s poverty exacerbated the issue.
CNN’s most substantive segments aired during the August 30 episode of CNN Tonight. One segment detailed how nonwhite communities are more likely to have unclean drinking water and connected the Jackson water crisis to other vulnerable communities facing environmental harms. The other segment featured local residents who explained the challenges Jackson faces as a majority Black city without adequate resources. Anchor Victor Blackwell said the collapse of the city’s water system after “moderate” flooding was “the culmination of decades of failure.”
Notable MSNBC segments include the August 30 episode of All In With Chris Hayes and the August 31 episode of Katy Tur Reports. MSNBC’s most substantive environmental justice segments aired during the August 30 and August 31 episodes of Alex Wagner Tonight. During the August 30 segment, host Wagner detailed the history of how racial animus and white flight resulted in a dramatic decrease in the resources needed for Jackson to maintain and improve its critical water infrastructure.
And during the August 31 episode, Wagner explained how poverty and economic inequality contributed to the water crisis.
The Jackson water crisis is rooted in environmental racism and economic injustice
Even though environmental harms affect everyone, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately harmed by poor air, water, and soil. This is often no accident, as the history of Jackson clearly illustrates. The city, which is more than 80% Black and has a poverty rate of almost 25%, is suffering from a devastating combination of long-neglected infrastructure, worsening climate impacts, and political strife. According to Grist:
Local advocates say that the city’s water problems are rooted in a history of racism and neglect. The city suffers from old infrastructure that was designed to support a larger population. After the civil rights movement led to the integration of schools and other public facilities in the 1960s, white people fled the city by the thousands. According to the Jackson Free Press, nearly 20,000 white people left the city between 2000 and 2010. When white people left, the city lost both tax revenue and institutional support. Today, the city is roughly 80 percent Black. Similar circumstances have led to water crises in Flint, Detroit, and other cities.
The systemic issues that have plagued Jackson for decades often plague other cities that have large marginalized communities. Reporting from The Guardian in 2021 found that the “health effects of these inequalities are staggering.” The article continues, explaining that “there has long been a lack of political will to protect the communities most harmed by pollution – and the climate crisis could exacerbate these inequalities, as well as create new ones.”
How national TV news can improve its environmental justice coverage
Failing to contextualize the role environmental injustice plays in natural disasters and humanitarian crises can shape the public response to these events. A recent study covered by Nature found if people don’t understand how racism drives environmental inequities, it will be harder to implement solutions to rectify these disparities.
National TV news, thus far, has been far too slow to consistently apply an environmental justice lens to important national stories. For example, Colonial’s handling of one of the largest gasoline leaks in American history was already a local scandal before the company announced in early May 2021 that it was under a ransomware attack from Eastern European hackers. Although the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack and its ramifications quickly became a national story, the company’s resulting, devastating gas leak never became part of that larger coverage.
Last year’s broadcast coverage of the water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan, also highlighted the limits of broadcast news’ understanding of environmental justice. According to a Media Matters’ study of broadcast news environmental justice coverage in 2021:
Presented with a story that encapsulated how America’s legacy of racial and economic injustice produces disproportionately poor outcomes for marginalized communities, national TV news shows largely chose anodyne framing about a government’s failure to deliver potable water to its residents. This distinct failure to include vital context for broadcast news audiences also, in no small part, hides the true scale of environmental injustices by siloing them away from the public’s broader understanding of policies that materially harm socially marginalized people every day.
As coverage of the water crisis in Jackson continues, it is vital that national TV networks continue reporting out the story to help pressure the authorities who need to respond to the immediate crisis. In the longer term, broadcast and cable news must improve their environmental justice coverage by reporting how systemic neglect harms vulnerable communities, why these communities face greater health risks, and what public policy solutions exist to address these challenges. This includes reporting on how environmental justice intersects with people’s everyday lives; connecting environmental consequences to political and corporate policies that deepen and further inequitable outcomes; and amplifying the voices of those from frontline communities.
This vital context could help provide a more complete picture that better informs viewers about the local, state, and federal public policy responses that govern their lives, inspires solidarity with other communities facing similar challenges, and galvanizes the public to demand effective and equitable plans to confront climate change and environmental injustice.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC and all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ Mornings and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News for any of the terms “Jackson,” “Mississippi,” “Reeves,” or “capital” within close proximity of any of the terms “water,” “crisis,” “emergency,” or “treatment,” or any variation of the term “drink” from August 29, 2022, through August 31, 2022.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the water crisis. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the water crisis with one another. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.
We then reviewed each segment for whether any speaker mentioned any of the demographic and socio-economic terms “White,” “Black,” “African American,” “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Indigenous,” “low income,” “poverty,” “poor,” or “immigrant” to determine whether the segment included discussion of environmental justice.