Study: National television coverage of East Palestine train derailment ignored industry culpability
Only 3% of coverage discussed rail industry’s campaign to weaken regulations
National TV news failed to incorporate critical context about the rail industry’s efforts to weaken safety regulations for 10 days after a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on the night of February 3.
A Media Matters analysis from February 4 through February 13 found that:
- Only two programs, both airing on February 13, included a discussion on how regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials by rail were weakened under multiple administrations by rail industry lobbyists, including those representing Norfolk Southern.
- Major TV news networks on cable (CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC) and broadcast (ABC, CBS, and NBC) aired nearly 3 hours across 92 segments about the Ohio train derailment.
- None of this coverage aired during the major Sunday political shows including ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press.
- The tragedy received no national TV news for a three-day period from February 10 through February 12.
- Coverage resumed during February 13 evening programming on cable news. Fox News and MSNBC aired a combined 56 minutes of coverage on February 13, accounting for 34% of total train derailment reporting on TV news.
The train that derailed on February 3, operated by Norfolk Southern, contained hazardous material that created a toxic fire, prompting a state of emergency declaration and the evacuation of the surrounding community. The incident comes after a decade-long campaign by the rail industry to weaken federal regulations governing the transportation of toxic and dangerous materials.
With little exception, this story has been covered on corporate TV news as an accident, with outlets showing little curiosity about the circumstances that make these types of incidents not just more likely but perhaps inevitable.
Insufficient safeguards plague the U.S. rail industry, and the Ohio derailment could be the tip of the iceberg
Experts are warning that the Ohio train derailment, after years of industry-led attacks on rail transportation oversight and regulations, could be the “tip of the iceberg and a red flag” and urging immediate action.
As reported by The Lever, efforts to strengthen regulations in response to a rash of dangerous train derailments, beginning a decade ago, including one that killed 47 people, have been met with fierce opposition by the rail industry. And regarding Norfolk Southern specifically:
"Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation.”
However this highly salient context has been mostly absent from national TV news reporting on the still-unfolding public health catastrophe.
TV news networks largely failed to include crucial context in their Ohio train derailment coverage
Taken together, the nearly 3 hours of coverage by national TV news represent a mostly missed opportunity to contextualize the derailment with longtime and ongoing efforts by the rail industry to chip away at safeguards that govern the transport of dangerous materials and to investigate corporate practices that may have contributed to this tragedy.
On cable, national networks — CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC — aired just over 2.5 hours of coverage on the train derailment in Ohio. The majority of reporting was done by CNN, which dedicated over an hour of coverage across 42 segments. It was followed by Fox News, which aired 50 minutes across 22 segments. MSNBC spent 36 minutes across 19 segments reporting on the derailment and toxic fire that followed.
Only 3 segments — all on February 13, two on MSNBC’s The ReidOut and one on Fox’s Jesse Watters Primetime — discussed the role of rail industry lobbyists in rolling back safety regulations that govern the transport of hazardous materials. Watters mentioned that after a derailment in New Jersey in 2012, three administrations failed to mandate safety regulations “because the lobbyists said it would cost too much.”
The ReidOut has provided the most substantive discussion on the issue of weakened regulations. Host Joy Reid explained that “there is renewed scrutiny on some of the deregulation that has left the industry vulnerable to these kinds of disasters, including the Trump administration's reversal of an Obama-era rule that required braking system upgrades for high hazard trains hauling flammable liquids and a rule created in 2020 allowing liquefied [natural] gas to be shipped by rail with no additional safety regulations.”
In a panel discussion with National Wildlife Federation Executive Vice President Mustafa Santiago Ali and NBC correspondent Ron Allen, Reid also noted, in the context of insufficient regulations, that “about 4.5 tons of toxic chemicals are shipped by rail every year. An average of 12,000 rail cars carrying hazardous material pass through cities and towns every single day.”
On broadcast news, corporate networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 15 minutes of coverage of the derailment. NBC covered the derailment for 7 minutes, followed by CBS (6 minutes). ABC spent a mere 2 minutes reporting on the incident. None of the corporate broadcast coverage discussed lax safety regulations.
By failing to cover it at all, Sunday political shows — ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press — abdicated their role in delving into the ramifications of a weakened regulatory state and the corporate practices that privilege cost-cutting over safety.
By reporting on the derailment as merely an accident, national news largely dismissed the reality that the rail industry or Norfolk Southern should be held accountable and forfeited an opportunity to fuel a national debate on the safe transportation of hazardous materials including crude oil, as “more than 25 million people live within a mile of a crude-by-rail route.” Media Matters has found that unfortunately this is the typical treatment of industrial accidents.
However, in October 2021, when an offshore oil pipe was breached near a popular beach in wealthy Orange County, California, Media Matters analysis showed that reporting was not only extensive, but it also quickly turned from reports on the immediate environmental degradation to coverage focused on the company responsible for the leak, Amplify Energy Co., specifically reporting on the company's long history of safety violations and financial instability as well as covering reports that Amplify Energy Co. reportedly failed to alert authorities of the breach for at least 12 hours from when it was first detected.
There should not be a disparity between which communities' stories are told and which bad actors are held to account. As the Ohio disaster and the resulting legal action continue to unfold, more national TV news programs should provide crucial context about Norfolk Southern and the weakened regulatory landscape the company helped create and operates within.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC and all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press for any of the terms “Ohio,” “train,” “East Palestine,” or “Norfolk Southern” within close proximity of any of the terms “crash,” “chemical,” “waste,” “toxic,” or “toxin” or any variation of either of the terms “derail” or “hazard” from February 4, 2023, when the freight train in Ohio derailed, through February 13, 2023.
We timed 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.
We then reviewed all segments for whether they included context about how rail industry lobbyists successfully weakened regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials by rail under multiple administrations.