News flash: Despite doubters, we're covering the news in East Palestine
East Palestine has been in the news this month, which, of course, you know.
The photos of the apocalyptic column of fire and smoke created when officials burned off toxic chemicals carried on a derailed Norfolk Southern train were aired and published by major news outlets across the country since the crash on Feb. 3.
Reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists for Ideastream Public Media were among the many journalists there, filing stories and relaying information to concerned Northeast Ohioans and people across the country and the globe. They broadcast stories on WKSU, wrote stories and took photographs for ideastream.org, provided newscast updates and in-depth interviews on NPR, the BBC and Vox.
Our journalists spoke to a mom who lives near the crash who was filling the cracks in the window casing in her kid's bedroom with foam insulation. The talked to a man who went to an Ohio Department of Health clinic after suffering nose bleeds. He worried they were caused by exposure to chemicals in the air.
Ideastream covered town halls and press conferences and reported on the results of environmental testing and official statements from the rail company and other involved groups, along with experts who cast doubt on the rosy pictures they painted. Our digital team created a timeline of events and published a list of resources for people affected.
Ideastream Public Media and its local news partners have published at least 39 stories on East Palestine so far — that's more than one a day. That doesn't include all of the national news reports that were carried on our air and posted on our web site.
Reporter, Abigail Bottar published at least 13 stories on the crash and its aftermath and contributed to many others. She'll be covering another town hall meeting in East Palestine tonight.
This is what it looks like when a newsroom, collectively, opens its veins and spills ink (or whatever the audio and digital equivalent are) to cover a tragedy and its impact on a community.
That's why one comment we heard from many people in East Palestine sparked some anxiety, and in some case exasperation, in the newsroom this week.
Reporter: "They said the media isn't covering this."
Editor: "What? Every outlet in the country is there. And weren't you standing directly in front of them with a microphone when they said this? How can this be?"
Reporter: "Yeah. But that's what they said."
There are two things that scare good journalists. One is their work being ignored by a public that needs accurate information. The other is not being trusted.
This statement strikes both those nerves. Cue the collective handwringing.
The media extensively covered the train derailment in East Palestine. That's just the truth. But it's also true that many people in the area believe they've been dismissed, ignored or forgotten.
The reasons are complex.
The first is that when you talk to many people in East Palestine (and basically everywhere else) they'll tell you that they don't get their news from traditional media outlets. They get it from social media: Facebook groups where neighbors share information, YouTube and TikTok.
Many outlets, including Ideastream, are on those platforms, but the algorithms (and your neighbors) deliver content they think people are likely to consume. If the algorithm doesn't think a person will consume content from a local public media station, it doesn't show up in their feeds.
If we're not in people's feeds, many think we aren't there and we aren't providing coverage.
This is a feature. Not a bug.
One way to to overcome that is to follow us on our social media channels:
Facebook: @WKSU and @WCPN (Soon to be consolidated @Ideastream)
Another issue, I think what people mean by "not covering" something. In many cases, they know we're reporting, but what they hear — especially soon after a disaster — is the media repeating information from official sources and not the concerns and lived experiences of people in the community who are suspicious of officials.
This is partly because of the way journalism works. Many outlets have people who specialize in watchdog, accountability or investigative journalism — including Ideastream. These kinds of reporters and editors check to see if public agencies and private companies are doing what they're supposed to.
But in order to fact-check someone's statement, you have to let them make it. No one remains a doe-eyed innocent long in a newsroom. We do check official statements and look into tips from whistle-blowers and members of the public, but investigative work takes a lot of time.
Some outlets, most notably ProPublica, have begun to turn out watchdog journalism on East Palestine, and we've carried their work on ideastream.org and on WKSU.
Reporters at ProPublica got ahold of Norfolk Southern's company rules and discovered the company allows a monitoring team to instruct crews to ignore alerts from train track sensors designed to flag potential mechanical problems.
By collaborating with ProPublica, WESA in Pittsburgh, NPR and a nonprofit newsroom specializing in the environment called the Allegheny Front, Ideastream seeks to bring its audiences the most comprehensive coverage possible. It's not a competition for scoops. It's a commitment to inform the public.
But also at play is the politics of the place.
Columbiana County, which includes East Palestine, is Trump Country. In 2020, 71.7% of voters supported Donald J. Trump.
Trump is famously antagonistic toward the media. He called the media the "enemy of the people" and popularized the term "Fake News." He has been so prolific that the Washington Post published "A History of the Trump War on Media."
He visited East Palestine, throwing bombs.
Trust in the media reached its lowest point ever during Trump's 2016 campaign. Only 32% of poll respondents said they had a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in the media, according to Gallup. In 2022, 32% said they did.
The poll shows that Americans' trust in the media is sharply polarized along partisan lines. In 2022, 70% of Democrats said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the media. Only 14% of Republicans said the same. For the record, Ideastream Public Media doesn't cover the news for Democrats or Republicans. It covers it for all.
The poll numbers don't mean that most people are hostile toward local news reporters. In most cases, the people of East Palestine have been gracious, welcoming and eager to talk with us.
But reporters covering local news have felt the effects of that anti-media rhetoric, especially in parts of the state that are deeply skeptical. The shared vernacular of those who distrust the media does periodically bubble up.
In the course of reporting in Northeast Ohio over the past three years, I've heard people say things like, "I will tell you, but I bet you won't report it," or "I won't talk to you because you're going to twist everything I say."
In those cases, Ideastream reporters do what we do every day. We report the news, without twist. We invite skeptics and supporters alike to access it.
That's how we earn trust.
"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.