Population Health Blog

Population Health Blog

Why It Matters

Journalist examines the public health implications of the water shutoff issue

By Esperanza Cantu

Recently, Detroit journalist Martina Guzman redirected the narrative regarding Detroit’s water shutoffs in an article published in Model D http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/water-shut-offs-100615.aspx. Since 2014, various media outlets have insisted upon focusing stories on people’s ability to pay or on water as a human right. The Population Health Council has been actively researching the water shutoff issue in Detroit, and issued a public statement regarding the controversial issue in the summer of 2014.

Framing is tantamount to finding a solution for any controversial political issue. For the last year, the Population Health Council has been seeking narratives regarding people’s experiences having their water shut off. Muddled in those conversations has been the acknowledgement of the severity of public health consequences of lack of water. Advocating for a moratorium on water shutoffs with the ‘water as a human right’ argument somehow removes the human experience from the issue, although that may not be intentional. It focuses on the activist perspective regarding water and resource allocation for all. On the other side of this lies the ‘affordability’ argument, which tends to focus more on personal finances, responsibility, and suspicions of “gaming the system.”

The problem with these two frames is that they still do not share the consequences of not having access to water. Like actual picture frames, political frames can encase a picture and hold it for others to see, but it is not the picture itself. These frames are not pictures and do not share stories; they do not share the real human experience of lack of water.

Guzman’s piece provides a voice to the human narrative regarding the shutoffs, reframing the issue to one of real human experiences. Through others’ stories, she provides a voice to the vulnerability; she discusses the sides that people don’t want to share or hear about–shame, body odor, hygienic issues, and more. This is the side of the water shutoffs that those who largely drive the narrative forward don’t want to hear, and importantly, these truths don’t require political framing.

Esperanza Cantu is the 2015-16 W.K.Kellogg Population Health Fellow