Tackling false information after the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment

Mar 28, 2023 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
Railroad tracks

False information surrounding the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio in early February has circulated at alarming rates in the incident’s aftermath.

Delayed, confusing responses from public officials sparked confusion and anxiety among community members, and created a void for false online posts about journalists being arrested, dead fish and cattle, warnings about acid rain, and more, to go viral.

“Understandably, I noticed a clear sense of fear and a desire for people to understand what was happening to them in that moment,” said Eleanor McCrary, a fact-checker at USA Today, of the misinformation.

Misinformation around disasters is common for a variety of reasons, explained Colleen Hagerty, a freelance disaster-focused journalist who writes a weekly newsletter called “My World’s on Fire.”

For one, people are in search of immediate answers. “Part of it is certainly that there are structures and systems in place for officials to respond to disasters, so that information isn't always coming out maybe as quickly as people want it, especially nowadays with social media," Hagerty said. “People might be turning to untrustworthy sources, because [that is] where they're seeing information coming from.”

In the weeks following the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train, some also claimed the story wasn’t being covered in the news. Joe Donatelli, the digital director of News 5 Cleveland tweeted a thread debunking these claims. Hagerty added: “I think there was a large narrative that the story wasn't being covered which is not true when you look at the local media [that] were on the ground the entire time and doing a lot of reporting.”



I spoke with two journalists about how they have addressed the misinformation following the East Palestine incident, answered questions from readers and provided crucial context in their reporting.

Debunk the misinformation

Journalists should keep an eye out for false information and the different forms it can take, and then fact-check it.

In February, McCrary co-wrote an article that fact-checked a series of claims surrounding the train derailment and ensuing developments. “Some of the misinformation was alongside accurate information in lengthy posts. There were multiple instances where I came across a mixture of true, false and partly false claims all within one post,” she said.

It’s equally important to verify images circulating online after a disaster. For example, Reuters fact-checked a false image of yellow water bottles with a “Trump” label shared online after former U.S. president Donald Trump donated water to East Palestine. 

Journalists can use reverse image searches to ensure the authenticity of visuals, Hagerty suggested.

Act as trusted sources of news

Journalists can source questions from community members to help guide their reporting after a disaster. 

In late February, Hagerty solicited questions on social media about East Palestine from her readers. Many were straightforward requests for facts about what actually had happened. She compiled answers to the questions, and also provided links to reliable reporting in one of her newsletters.

“People had basic questions about what was happening, and they just felt like the information they were seeing wasn't answering those questions,” Hagerty said. “I wanted to directly address that and also point people towards some of those more trustworthy sources.”

Hagerty often uses her newsletter to provide readers with basic knowledge about how the emergency management system works in the U.S. “That way they have that understanding, when something like East Palestine happens, and they understand why FEMA is not on the ground day one – it's not something that FEMA is able to do without a certain number of steps being taken from state and federal officials,” she explained.

It’s just as critical for journalists to verify the information they share online themselves. After all, readers look to journalists’ social media accounts for news they can trust. “Something I just always try to ask myself before I share something on social media is: what is this adding to the conversation?” said Hagerty. ”How is someone who's impacted in this situation right now going to be able to use the information I'm sharing?”

It’s important, too, for journalists to separate their own emotion from reporting when covering a distressing event like the train derailment, McCrary advised: “It’s okay to feel upset or scared, but only report what you factually know.” 

Contextualize the disaster

Providing context after a disaster helps readers better understand what is happening and can answer questions they may have about their health and safety.

One strategy journalists can employ when reporting on events that are still unfolding, said McCrary, is to use time stamps to mark when facts were learned.

Journalists should also get to know the key players on an issue and familiarize themselves with which organizations and government agencies are responsible for responding to the disaster. Press the players involved for information, and speak to people in these communities, said Hagerty: “[Make] sure there's an understanding of what sort of warnings did they get, what sort of information do they need?” 

In the case of East Palestine, important context may include details about how FEMA typically operates, the history of Norfolk Southern, railroad safety rules, and how common train derailments are in the U.S. There are also existing resources with information about ecological disasters around the world journalists can reference for context.

It’s important to ask “the right” questions of relevant officials and experts, too, Hagerty said. Questions that elicit answers about the impact on people’s health and safety after disasters can be especially effective. For instance, following the train derailment, scientists provided helpful explanations about the hazardous materials involved and their possible long-term effects. 

Photo by Ulf Schade via Pexels.