Water crisis is focus as Society of Environmental Journalists brings hundreds of reporters to Flint in 2018


Flint, Mich., site of the most serious drinking water crisis in modern U.S. history, will draw hundreds of working reporters from across North America when the University of Michigan-Flint hosts the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in 2018.

Environmental Journalism 2018 will bring the continent’s environmental press corps to Michigan a month before the crucial U.S. 2018 midterm elections. The conference is designed to provide journalists with the tools they need to hone the craft of writing and reporting in addition to providing insights into critical election-related issues, such as bridging the urban-rural divide.

The five-day event is scheduled for October 3-7, 2018, and is expected to attract 500-800 attendees — a mixture of journalists, environmental news sources and academics from across the country and globe.

The theme will be Fresh Water, Fresh Ideas. Climate change, innovative cars and environmental justice are among other topics that will be highlighted during the conference, which will feature media tours throughout Michigan.

“The conference’s focus on water, justice and social complexity will be relevant to reporters from around the world,” said conference co-chair Brian Bienkowski, editor of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate.  He lives in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

SEJ will bring hundreds of journalists to Flint two years after the city made international news because of high lead levels in its drinking water.

“This will be an opportunity to learn how Flint residents are coping with the long-term impacts of that crisis,” conference co-chair Emilia Askari said. “The lessons from Flint will resonate in hundreds of other communities dealing with similar infrastructure problems.” Askari teaches environmental journalism at UM-Ann Arbor and studies educational technology in a doctoral program at Michigan State University. She is a former Detroit Free Press reporter who lives in the Detroit area.

SEJ President Bobby Magill, a senior science writer at Climate Central, said the conference will help drive the national conversation about environmental news. “SEJ’s conference in Flint will give journalists an opportunity to explore the environmental, social and economic issues that divide America from a battleground state. Flint represents challenges many cities face in providing clean drinking water for their residents.”

UM-Flint Chancellor Susan Borrego said the economic impact of the conference will be significant, as hundreds of attendees fill local hotels and restaurants. The main venue for the SEJ gathering will be the university’s Riverfront Conference Center. Many UM-Flint students and faculty will have the chance to interact with journalists and others participating in the SEJ events.

High-ranking government regulators, nationally known politicians, prize-winning scientists and prominent activists often keynote SEJ conferences. Journalists at the conference will represent many of the most respected traditional news outlets in the world — plus some innovative news start-ups.

“The opportunity to host such a globally impactful gathering is a privilege and will truly benefit the entire Flint community,” Borrego said. “This conference allows UM-Flint to create experiential learning opportunities for our students, while helping the rest of the world understand our community beyond the headlines of the past few years. We are delighted to partner with SEJ to not only bring attention to Flint, but also cultivate timely and meaningful discussions on environmental issues of all kinds.” 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a physician at Michigan State University’s Hurley Medical Center who played a prominent role in the Flint water crisis story, said that Flint will offer inspiration and insights to the visiting journalists. “At so many key points, dogged journalism was instrumental to uncovering and exposing the complex truths of the Flint water crisis,” she said.

“At this critical time for the environment, and for science generally, the Flint story teaches so many lessons.  The Flint story is at the intersection of public health, medicine, infrastructure, austerity, racism and the environment. It is fitting that the Society of Environmental Journalists is meeting in Flint.  Welcome.”

SEJ Executive Director Melisa Klem said: “SEJ has a long history of bringing reporters to where the action is. This conference carries on that tradition and will put top sources and ideas in front of our nation’s storytellers.”

SEJ conferences are among the largest such annual gatherings anywhere in the world. Environmental Journalism 2017 will be Oct. 4-8 in Pittsburgh, Penn., hosted by the University of Pittsburgh.

SEJ’s  mission is to strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism across all media to advance public understanding of environmental issues. SEJ, founded in 1990, held its second annual conference at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 1992. That conference was also co-chaired by Askari, SEJ’s second president. In 2000, SEJ brought its annual conference to Michigan State University in East Lansing. Today, SEJ’s membership includes more than 1,200 journalists and academics working in every type of news media in the United States, Canada, Mexico and 27 other countries.

UM-Flint is a regional comprehensive university founded in 1956. Ranked by U.S. News and World Report as a “Best in the Midwest” in 2015, UM-Flint has more than 8,500 students in over 100 undergraduate and 18 master’s degree programs. Topics of study at the university range from international business to public health.  


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