Investigating stories on water access, affordability and safety: 5 tips to get started

About 8 in 10 Americans carry a computer with them in the form of a smartphone but many in the U.S. still lack one of the most basic modern conveniences — running water at home.

New research in the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences estimates 1.1 million people in the U.S. report lacking “complete plumbing,” which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, consists of indoor hot and cold water and a bathtub or shower for the people who live there.

People who rent their homes are 61% more likely to lack complete plumbing than those who own their homes, find the authors of the new paper, “Geographies of Insecure Water Access and the Housing–Water Nexus in US Cities.”

They note that the Census Bureau often undercounts renters, people without homes and people of color, “demographics that are disproportionately plumbing poor.”

The Census Bureau has acknowledged that those groups are undercounted.

Given census undercounting, the authors estimate the real number of people in the U.S. that lack complete plumbing is likely closer to 2 million — roughly the size of the Kansas City metro area, for comparison.

Manny Teodoro, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies water affordability but wasn’t involved with the PNAS paper, points out that the number of people experiencing water insecurity may represent a small share of the U.S. population, but “a million or two people is a lot of people — and it should be unacceptable to us.”

The new research in PNAS reveals that piped water access remains a challenge for thousands of people living in cities, and also in rural areas. For local journalists across the U.S. and their audiences, water access is an underreported issue that matters.

Want to start investigating issues around water access, affordability and safety in your coverage area? We put together these five tips based on interviews with Teodoro and four others who have studied, experienced or reported on housing, race and water access, affordability and safety issues:

1. Remember that families experience water insecurity in the suburbs and rural areas, in addition to cities.

There are stories to be told about water affordability, access and safety in cities, and in suburbs and rural areas. Remember that poverty has spread to the suburbs and some of it is hidden, Sullivan says, and that issues around safe, piped water access affect renters and homeowners alike.

Take, for example, what Sullivan calls “informal subdivisions.” Those are mobile home parks where residents own their mobile homes and the land on which the homes sit, Sullivan explains. That land is often inexpensive and has little infrastructure, she says. Residents may rely on clean water being trucked in, or old wells that provide water with mineral or bacteria levels that exceed minimal safety standards.

“It’s important to look at a larger range of housing, not just urban apartments or subsidized housing,” Sullivan says.

2. If something seems strange, take a closer look. Newsroom investigations often start with questions about oddities that otherwise go unnoticed.

The News 5 Cleveland investigation led Regan and his team to pore over customer bills and public records.

But their investigation began with trinkets.

Reporters at the television station noticed the city of Cleveland’s water department giving away drinking cups, toothbrushes, backpacks and other schwag during weekend events around the city.

“That struck us as odd, since Cleveland is not flush with cash and it’s not like customers can actually ‘choose’ another provider,” Regan told Journalist’s Resource by email. “There’s no competition and no reason for self-promotion at ratepayer expense.”

The news team found the water department had spent nearly a half-million dollars over three years to promote itself. When the team started digging they “opened up a floodgate of reaction, including complaints of overbilling,” Regan said. Overbilling became a major focus of the station’s subsequent reporting.

3. Build relationships with residents before crisis hits.

“I think there is a misconception about people in crisis — like it’s their fault,” says Reynolds, the filmmaker raised in Flint.

The key to comprehensive, authentic storytelling, he says, is building a relationship of trust with the people whose stories are being told.

Reynolds adds that it’s also important to treat community members experiencing water crises as credible sources of information.

“I think city officials are great — they have a level of information that the average person may not have,” Reynolds says. “But I think there is a lot of knowledge and a lot of information that can come from the people who are living it and dealing with it.”

4. Ask the question, “What does the research say?”

Teodoro suggests journalists incorporate high-quality research into human interest stories. There is a wealth of peer-reviewed research from the past decade on water access, affordability and safety. Get up to speed on some of that research in our recent roundup of five studies on racial disparities in access to running water.

“There’s an ‘if it bleeds it leads’ aspect to the news reporting I’ve seen on water infrastructure and affordability,” Teodoro says. “What I would hope would be that journalists would temper their human interest stories and their clickbait-y headlines with sound research. I don’t mind the clickbait-y headlines if they’re backed by sound research. But sometimes they’re not.”

He adds: “If journalists advance good science, they facilitate the public interest.”

5. Start persistent and stay persistent, especially with public records requests.

Montag’s research on water affordability in Cleveland was spurred by the work of and communication with Regan’s investigative team.

In December 2019, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit against the City of Cleveland alleging that liens for unpaid water bills there have a discriminatory racial impact, with three times as many liens placed in majority Black neighborhoods compared with white neighborhoods in certain years, she says.

“I’m confident we would not have been able to do all that we did without that local news team following up,” Montag says. “Following up on leads and publicizing this brings the attention that is needed for long-term advocacy and change.”

Regan and his team filed open records requests and discovered “a mountain of problems, including failure to provide customers with water review board hearings to dispute bills.” His team reviewed budget expenses, customer complaint records, contracts with consultants, complaints filed with the state attorney general and better business bureaus, and court cases brought by utility customers.

Obtaining records hasn’t always been easy, Regan recalled. Government agencies sometimes refused to provide documents or were “painfully slow.”

“The only answer is persistence,” he told JR.

Reynolds agrees that persistence and follow-up are critical to exposing long-term inequities in water access and safety.

And remember, he says, just because a story is no longer in the national news doesn’t mean the story is over:

“Where are all the reporters now? How do we get our stories told now?”

Read more about new research on Americans who lack access to piped water in their homes, plus past research on racial inequality and water insecurity in the U.S.