Davison student journalists broadcast loud and clear
Jordyn Bruns needed a nudge — a literal nudge.
Surrounded by a throng of media outlets from all over the state at a news conference with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver about replacing the city’s lead-tainted water pipes, Bruns, a 17-year-old reporter with Davison Community Schools’ DTV, knew she had to ask a question. Her camera person gave her a small shove into the crowd. She asked about the cost.
“I have to put my voice out there,” said Bruns, a junior at Davison High School. “It’s taught me a lot about putting myself out there and being confident in my questions. ...We’re the only high school doing this.”
Bruns is part of a small but ambitious group of high school journalists at DTV, Davison’s student-run cable access station. Covering Flint’s water crisis long before the national media descended on Flint, they’re getting powerful first-hand lessons about the role of the media, politics and the human toll when government fails to do its job. Davison is just 10 minutes outside Flint.
“All the major events, we’ve been there,” said DTV adviser Randy Scott, who previously worked for WXYZ in Detroit. “... It’s incredible. Our tripods are right between CNN and Al-Jazeera sometimes. It’s kind of wild. And it’s to the point now where other media (outlets) recognize us and expect us to be there.”
DTV’s news special on the Flint water crisis, “Undrinkable,” a 26-minute documentary the student staff wrote, filmed and edited, went viral after it was released in January and has more than 126,000 views on YouTube. It recently won Best of Show at the 48th annual Michigan Student Film Festival and another award at the Water Docs Film Festival in Toronto. Filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore even plugged it on Twitter.
“A hundred thousand (views) is ridiculous,” said DTV’s digital director Dane Morgan, 17. “Davison doesn’t even have 100,000 people.”
DTV, meanwhile, keeps pushing. Its second documentary on Flint’s tainted water — “Undrinkable: The Crisis Continues” — will be released on its website and on YouTube on April 25, the second anniversary of Flint’s switch to the Flint River as its water source.
The second documentary “will go in depth on many topics of the crisis; from what the people go through every single day — still, and it’s April! — to federal and state responses,” said Grant Polmanteer, 18, DTV’s executive producer, who plans to study broadcast journalism at Central Michigan University. “Our goal is to display the crisis at a deeper level and tell the story of everything encompassing it.”
And telling that story has had an impact far beyond journalism. Viewers have written the staff letters, asking for help. And several DTV staff members call covering the crisis “surreal” and nothing compared to those actually living it.
Filming the National Guard as it handed out water to residents, one case at a time, earlier this year, “was a moment for me that gave me goosebumps,” said Bruns. “That was surreal.’ ”
Polmanteer calls the neglect the people of Flint have faced “numbing.”
“As a person it’s taught me to not take what I have for granted,” he said. “I can’t believe a city of 100,000 would lose the ability to drink their own water.”
From the beginning
The water crisis has taken DTV to dozens of news conferences, resident protests, Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address and the Democratic debate. When MSNBC host Rachel Maddow came to Flint in January, she spoke to two media outlets afterward: an NBC affiliate and DTV.
Senior Merek Alam, who interviewed Maddow along with Weaver and Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, says often there isn’t time to be nervous during interviews: “If we were a few seconds later on most of that stuff, we wouldn’t have gotten it.”
For Scott, DTV’s adviser, the water crisis is personal. He grew up in Flint. A 1994 graduate of Flint Central High School, Scott says if you would ask anyone if you should drink water from the Flint River, the answer would be no. He now lives right across the city’s border in Genesee Township.
“We grew up knowing that was polluted water, that was bad water,” said Scott.
So when the city announced in 2014 that it would be switching to the Flint River as its water source, Scott and his staff started brainstorming story ideas. He and the DTV staff even considered doing their own water testing.
“At that point, we didn’t know it was going to blow up like this,” said Scott.
Matt Smith, who graduated from Davison High School in June, was one of the first student reporters to ask serious questions about the water supply, even before lead was discovered. He wrote and filmed a report about a chemical in the water called TTHM.
“We were looking for answers,” said Smith, 18.
Interviewing former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling in his office last summer, Smith asked a key question as the cameras rolled: Did Walling and his family drink Flint’s water? Walling said yes.
Smith won a national student press award for his report on Walling and the water crisis. He’s now working as a part-time reporter for WNEM, a Saginaw TV station, while going to Mott Community College. He said his DTV training “was phenomenal for the real world.” But covering Flint also taught him about the responsibility that comes with being a journalist.
“These folks deserve answers,” said Smith. “... Our job is to ask the tough questions — and just try to get some facts for the people.”
Inside the DTV studio on a recent spring day, students huddled over computers, editing video and preparing stories for the day’s newscast. Nearby, a flat-screen TV blared congressional testimony from an Environmental Protection Agency official, defending the agency’s handling of the water situation in Flint.
The 25 members of the staff were under the gun: They had two hours to write and edit their newscast, which they do every day of the week except Wednesday, at 1:28 p.m. Students also are required to film five hours a week of after-school footage, such as school concerts or games.
Gripping a black marker as the staff formed a semicircle around him, Polmanteer, the executive director, plotted the day’s newscast on a whiteboard. They’d lead with the congressional testimony on Flint; they’d end, as they always do, with a song requested by a Davison student (Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi”).
Staff members take turns being producers and filming the newscast. And while their program is more like those at some colleges, they’re still students. During a recent newscast, senior Trace Clinton, 18, was in the middle of his sports report when a scream erupted from the control room. Someone had accidentally superimposed a graphic on someone’s face mid-broadcast.
“As an anchor it kind of freaks me out when I hear screams of panic,” said Clinton after the newscast as the group analyzed how things went.
Scott told the staff mistakes will happen, but stay calm.
“We had some mis-punches,” Scott told the staff. “It’s going to happen ... . If you panic, everyone is going to be freaking out.”
Now, as these student journalists prepare for the release of their next documentary, they aren’t backing down. Several students say they’ve found what they want to do with their lives.
“This has really opened my shell,” Bruns said. “This is what I’m supposed to do.”