STUDY: What Did People Google Throughout the Flint Water Crisis?

By Yessenia Funes Apr 28, 2017

The Pew Research Center looked at Google search data from January 5, 2014 through July 2, 2016 to get a different perspective on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan for a study released yesterday (April 27).

Researchers begin their study in 2014 because that’s when the first events that led to the contamination of Flint’s water occurred. They analyzed Flint, the state of Michigan and the entire United States.

They looked at 2,693 different search terms associated with the disaster, including “Flint water EPA” and “why is my water brown.” Ultimately, these different terms were grouped into five categories: news and media (955 terms), politics and government (344 terms), public health and environment (557 terms), personal health and household (692 terms) and chemical and biological components (135 terms).

Here are some of the major findings from the study, which Pew presented in the form of a digital essay:

  • Local, regional and national media coverage on the crisis was at its highest in January 2016 when former President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency. Before then, there was virtually no national media coverage.
  • Flint residents knew something was wrong with their water before their government officials or local media did: They began searching for information on their water in mid-July 2014. This was after the city switched its water source in April, but before local media increased their coverage of the issue.
  • Each year, search activity broadened. While search activity remained largely consistent in 2014 and stayed within Flint and Michigan, search activity increased and interest spread to other categories by 2015. In 2016, search for all categories rose across the entire country.
  • The public was first interested in what was happening, searching for news. Within a year, in 2015, they wanted to know how this would impact them.
  • Searches related to personal health made up the largest share of activity across all geographic areas and throughout all categories.

This case may have zoomed into this one particular event, but researchers hope that this will teach something about how news spreads in our current society. Pew’s Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell explained why the team decided to use the Flint water crisis as a case study in a Q&A:

We wanted a story with many unique Internet search keywords, as well as a precise geographic area, both of which tend to allow for more accurate tracking of internet search activity. We also hoped to have a news story that people could connect with at many levels. The Flint case meets these criteria. There are many search keywords that are specific to the Flint crisis. It also had a long timeline, evolved from a local issue to a national one and became a story with impact at the personal, community and political levels.

Check out the complete digital essay here.