The country’s top five national newspapers -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times -- alongside Chicago’s top local newspapers -- Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and Daily Herald -- all ignored a new report from The Guardian exposing the horrifyingly high levels of lead in Chicago’s tap water.
On September 21, The Guardian published an astonishing new report that found “shocking” levels of lead in Chicago’s water supply. The Guardian and water engineer Elin Betanzo analyzed a trove of Chicago data looking at water tests performed between 2016 and 2021 and found that “one in 20 tap water tests performed for thousands of Chicago residents found lead, a neurotoxic metal, at or above US government limits.” According to the report, “Chicago itself has never released an analysis of the results.”
The Guardian also found that nine of the top 10 ZIP codes with the highest amount of lead were Black and Hispanic neighborhoods; one particular home in a majority-Black neighborhood had “lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion (ppb) – 73 times the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit of 15ppb.” Betanzo, who has brought attention to water crises in both Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan, warned about the “potent” and “irreversible” consequences of untreated lead in water for both children and adults.
From September 21 to October 4, the following national newspapers did not cover the report at all: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Although all three of the largest local Chicago newspapers -- the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and Daily Herald -- have previously covered the city’s dire lead water crisis, all three ignored this new reporting from The Guardian.
The failure of both national and local newspapers to cover this critical new data on Chicago’s lead problem is emblematic of a larger pattern in mainstream media -- whether print or TV -- of ignoring environmental concerns until the problem has swelled to dramatic size. The ongoing water crisis in Flint was mostly ignored by national newspapers at its height in 2014 and 2015, and they only focused attention on it in 2016 when there was a national emergency declared by the governor.
Even when mainstream media have covered environmental concerns like water crises, they tend to ignore how they disproportionately affect communities of color. In coverage of the recent water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, cable and broadcast networks spent very little time discussing it within an environmental justice frame, burying the context that the lack of running water in the city disproportionately affects Black communities.
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database in the top 5 U.S. newspapers by circulation (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) and the top 3 Chicago local newspapers by circulation (Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and Daily Herald) for the term “Chicago” and any of the terms “water,” “lead,” “neurotoxic,” or “Guardian” in the headline or lede paragraph from September 21, 2022, though October 4, 2022.
We defined articles as instances that referenced Chicago’s water crisis or The Guardian report in the headline or lede paragraph.