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A farewell reflection on Flint, local news, and Michigan Radio

Program Director Tamar Charney departs Michigan Radio after 19 years for a new position at NPR.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

It's so easy to think that the big important news stories are the ones happening in cities like London or Washington DC or countries like Syria and China.

I’ve heard many people dismiss local news as parochial “not in my backyard” disputes or worse, merely coverage of the latest house fires. But there are many local stories that should, and do, become national and even international news when they are told right.

The water crisis in Flint is an example.

Michigan Radio reporters have been toiling away on this story for months. It's taken a while for it to get traction as revelation after damning revelation came out. But eventually this ‘local’ Flint story has become international news. The problems with the drinking water have roots in racism, poverty, failures of government oversight, and our country's aging infrastructure. These are problems shared by communities all across the nation. It’s an incident that taps into our fears about the safety of our water and of our children. It calls into question whether we can trust our government.

We look down our noses at developing countries with unsafe water. We scoff at places weighed down by corrupt and incompetent governments. We pride ourselves on our American technological know how. But here is a city, right here in the US of A, where you can't drink the water, where government failed the people, and the technical knowledge about how to keep lead out of the water wasn't employed.  

The host's view at Michigan Radio.
Credit Tamar Charney / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The host's view at Michigan Radio.

Telling this kind of story is what Michigan Radio does. It is what local news can and should be. 

There's all kinds of cynicism about journalists. But I have to tell you, the journalists at Michigan Radio are some of the most idealistic kind hearted people I know. They got in the business because they think the world will be a better place and our democracy will work better when citizens have information. These are people committed to finding out the truth and getting answers. It saddens me that society undervalues the work journalists do and even worse, blames them for causing the problems they cover.  

The Flint water problems were being swept under the rug and nothing might have been done if it weren't for a mom, a researcher, a pediatrician, and yes, reporters. It’s a story I’m proud to say Michigan Radio has been at the forefront of telling.  

But it is likely the last major story told under my watch as Program Director. I'm leaving Michigan Radio after 19 years at the station, the last 8 years of which I've been in charge of the station's content strategy, which includes determining what we want to accomplish with our local journalism. My goal was to help people "understand their state." By that I mean something a bit metaphorical, but also something quite literal. There's so much happening in our local communities that shed light on bigger predicaments we are in as individuals, as communities, as a state, and as a nation. 

I wanted our news reports and shows to use local stories as a way to help us understand the world around us and the human condition. Local news stories can shed light on specific local problems and show the ways human foibles play out -- things you can see both in a local school funding debate as well as a Shakespearean drama if you look carefully. That’s why I wanted this station to provide top quality local news along with the finest of national and international news programs. 

I'm headed to NPR to work on ways local news can have a bigger place in a new listening technology called NPR One. But I leave behind one of the best local journalism outlets in the country. One built mainly on listener donations. A station you should be proud of every time you tune in to hear your state and your stories reflected on your NPR News station.