As part of an unprecedented national journalistic collaboration, Dr. Steve Lillebuen (left) and 15 of his MacEwan University journalism students, including Cheyenne Juknies, Dylanna Fisher and Kiefer Sutherland, pictured here, examined lead levels in drinking water in Alberta. The result is Tainted Water, a major investigative project that officially launched on Monday, November 4.

Journalism students discover something sinister in Canada’s drinking water

November 4, 2019 | Society, Science, Health

In January 2019, 15 students in Dr. Steve Lillebuen’s investigative journalism class joined a national reporting network and started a project that had them knocking on hundreds of doors across Edmonton and other parts of Alberta, conducting dozens of interviews and collecting water samples from residents. Those samples were then sent off to accredited labs for analysis – and what they found may surprise you.

Tainted Water, a major investigative project officially launched on November 4, with key findings published in The Toronto Star and broadcast on Global News, reveals that lead levels in some Canadian cities’ drinking water rivals those of Flint, Michigan, says Patti Sonntag, director of the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, which facilitated the collaborative research effort.

“Surprisingly, what we found is that Montreal, Gatineau, Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, and Prince Rupert have lead levels in some older homes that are by some measures comparable to or higher than those of Flint, Michigan during its 2015 lead crisis.”

In mid-October, Le Devoir and Global News published the first reports from the unprecedented investigative collaboration that included nine universities, six media companies, 120 reporters, editors, student journalists, and faculty members across Canada. Further reports are now being published by media partners, including an international story from the Associated Press and results from Edmonton.

Several MacEwan journalism students continued working on the project after their class ended in April – Raysa Marcondes, Shaela Dansereau and Cheyenne Juknies as interns, and Dylanna Fisher, who was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the institute.

Investigative journalism not only tells people what they need to know, says Dylanna, it can also make a difference in their lives. “For me, this experience really put into perspective the importance of the field,” she says. “What I’m hoping comes from these articles is that people are aware that there are steps they can take to limit their exposure to lead and make sure their families are safe.”

Tainted Water helped fill a critical gap in news coverage, says Steve, a faculty member in the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, and shows the potential of collaborative efforts between students, the institute and other universities.

“Journalism schools need to be connected and engaged with their communities – and this project has given students the chance to get out of the classroom, work alongside professional journalists, and conduct in-depth investigative research across the province. Their hard work has also laid the foundation for other students to follow in their footsteps.”

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