Corporate broadcast news has steadily reported on the developing stories from the East Palestine train derailment. Although this coverage left much to be desired, it has provided a few key lessons that national TV news should incorporate in its coverage of future industrial disasters.
How corporate broadcast news has covered the East Palestine train derailment
On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern, which was carrying toxic chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing hazardous chemicals into the surrounding air, land, and water. For more than a week after the derailment, broadcast TV news coverage of the East Palestine derailment was sparse and sporadic and failed to provide viewers with important context about the rail industry’s efforts to weaken safety regulations. However, a second news cycle began during the middle of February, and broadcast coverage during this period was steady, informative, and responsive.
From February 14 through March 14, corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows aired a combined 98 segments about the derailment. ABC led with 36 segments, followed by CBS with 33, and NBC with 29. During this period, they reported on resident concerns about the potential current and future health impacts to the area, the discovery of more than 40,000 dead animals in the area, growing state and federal demands for Norfolk Southern to take accountability for the derailment and lead the clean up, and another Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio in early March.
Lessons broadcast news should learn from its coverage
Corporate broadcast TV news coverage of environmental justice dipped in both quality and quantity in 2022, with a scant 12 segments aired. And like in previous years, last year’s coverage missed multiple opportunities to report on major train derailments, oil refinery explosions, chemical plant fires and other contamination events. When these stories are covered at all, they are mostly news briefs about a particular incident with little to no context about how these disasters disproportionately harm rural communities, low-income communities, and communities of color.
There are theories about why East Palestine eventually became a major national story. Whatever the reason, looking back on the coverage of the derailment highlights several opportunities for broadcast news to improve its coverage of industrial accidents.
Lesson One: Cover industrial accidents as environmental justice stories
The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine was always an environmental justice story, even though it was not always framed as one. Rural communities and low-income white communities also face greater risks from industrial accidents. According to InsideClimate News:
Train derailments overwhelmingly happen in rural and tribal areas where communities have fewer resources for response and recovery, Junod said. There are more than 140,000 miles of railway in the U.S., and over 100,000 of them run through rural areas. Just a month after the East Palestine derailment, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio, though it was not carrying hazardous materials.
Junod’s research on train derailments shows that residents in rural towns like East Palestine, located in a hub of oil, gas and freight transportation development, usually bear the economic and social burden on top of the environmental and health threats of such catastrophes.
Atmos published an investigative article that traced the train’s route before it derailed in East Palestine, finding that it originated in a mostly Black area of southern Illinois. In addition to detailing the widespread harm the fossil fuel and chemical industries have on vulnerable communities, the article asked vital questions that broadcast news reporters should consider, especially when the next major industrial disaster inevitably strikes:
Why must it take a major environmental disaster for the world to notice? Why do we need flames and black clouds? Is the death and trauma of communities riddled with cancer and asthma not enough? Does the continued heating up of the planet from fossil fuel emissions not suffice?
Going forward, coverage of industrial disasters must contextualize how these incidents are part of a broader pattern of choices by corporations and public officials to offer up marginalized communities across the country as “sacrifice zones.” Journalists have a responsibility to demand accountability from the polluting industries behind the suffering in these communities, which is the result of both catastrophic industrial failures and everyday operations.
Lesson Two: Listen to community members
Broadcast coverage of East Palestine featured the voices of community members who were able to share their anger and frustration about the train derailment, as well as their fears about future adverse health impacts. For example, the March 9 episode of CBS Mornings featured residents concerned about their safety and upset at Norfolk Southern’s response to the derailment.
When the next major disaster happens, broadcast news shows should continue to amplify the voices of those directly affected by water pollution, air pollution, and exposure to toxic and hazardous substances. They must also consistently feature individuals and groups fighting and organizing to stop these environmental harms.
Lesson Three: Demand accountability
As coverage of the East Palestine train derailment became more consistent in mid-February, broadcast news shows did a decent job of highlighting the role Norfolk Southern’s negligence played in the disaster. For example, the February 24 episode of CBS Mornings highlighted efforts to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment and its aftermath.
Unfortunately, these disasters don’t normally receive a high amount of coverage, and those that do are framed as “acts of God.” Broadcast news shows must not be credulous and, instead, demand accountability from the corporations responsible for these disasters and the public officials who weaken or remove regulations on these corporations’ behalf.
Why substantive and sustained coverage matters
Sustained and substantive coverage of environmental disasters can lead to beneficial material outcomes for impacted communities. For example, a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which “would require rail carriers to give advance notice to state emergency response officials about what they're transporting, increase rail car inspections to ensure those carrying hazardous materials are inspected at regular intervals and require crews of at least two people for every train.” In addition, the Biden administration’s 2024 budget includes a nearly 20% increase for the Environmental Protection Agency, the first significant EPA budget increase in more than 10 years.
Although the residents of East Palestine will need a lot more help and resources to recover from the disaster, sustained and substantive media attention likely played a role in galvanizing action to address the disaster. And it will take sustained and substantive media attention to hold polluting industries accountable for future disasters and unravel the networks of power that place corporate profits over human lives.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight; CBS’ Mornings and Evening News; and NBC’s Today and Nightly News for any of the terms “Ohio,” “train,” “East Palestine,” or “Norfolk Southern” within close proximity to any of the terms “crash,” “chemical,” “waste,” “toxic,” or “toxin” or any variation of either of the terms “derail” or “hazard” from February 14, 2023, through March 14, 2023.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the Ohio train derailment was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the accident. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the train derailment with one another.
We did not count passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the train derailment without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the train derailment scheduled to air later in the broadcast.