AUSTIN, TX — At 7:30 pm Eastern time on May 16, Erin Burnett turned toward the camera in CNN’s New York studio and teed up the next story: “The people of West, Texas, have been waiting for a month to find out what caused the horrific fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 15 people and leveled much of their town. Today, state and federal authorities said they still can’t get to the bottom of it.”
Burnett tossed to correspondent Ed Lavandera out in West, where federal and state authorities had just announced that they had narrowed the cause of the fire that triggered the April 17 blast to three possibilities—a crime, an electrical failure, or a malfunctioning golf cart battery—but a definitive explanation remained elusive. As Lavandera explained that the precise cause is still undetermined, Burnett looked quizzical. “It’s a fertilizer plant,” she replied.
The exchange between the anchor in New York and the correspondent in Texas neatly epitomized how the West tragedy, in which 15 people were killed and more than 200 injured, vexed a lot of the news coverage—particularly that from out-of-state and national outlets. While the contemporaneous bombing at the Boston Marathon had a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, with the alleged villains caught or killed within a week, West refuses to conform to a simple narrative. Today, the story stubbornly remains a mystery subject to continued scientific, forensic, and investigative probing, and interest from national outlets has waned—a month after much of a town was demolished, not one cable news network cut into its coverage to carry the news conference on the investigation live.
As in many disasters, manmade or natural, a lot of the initial reporting about the explosion in West turned out to be wrong. That sometimes comes with the territory—as authorities puzzle out what happened, they share claims and theories that turn out not to hold up. But too often in coverage of West, caveats were disregarded, theories were presented as certainties or without ample skepticism, inaccuracies were repeated, and facts that ran against the prevailing narrative—preventable industrial accident—were sidelined. There were a handful of local news outlets that shined (more on that later). But first, the shortcomings.
1) The first big blunder out of the gate was the claim or suggestion—often unattributed to any source, official or otherwise—that the explosive material was anhydrous ammonia, a liquid that readily converts to gas, is used in fertilizer, and was present at the West facility. On April 18, the day after the explosion, for example, The Washington Post referred definitively (and without attribution) to anhydrous ammonia as “the substance that exploded catastrophically Wednesday at a company in West, Texas.” The Denver Post did much the same (April 18 headline: “Anhydrous ammonia, which exploded in Texas, used often in Colorado.”) CBS This Morning, in an interview the same day with a physicist who consults for the network in New York, speculated that water from fire hoses had destabilized the anhydrous ammonia, causing it to explode and setting off the ammonium nitrate (another material present at the facility).
But the news outlets reporting this theory overlooked the fact that anhydrous ammonia, while it can be toxic, is generally not known to explode. And company paperwork filed with the state had said the gas would not pose a catastrophic risk, as The Dallas Morning News noted almost as soon as the explosion took place. While the company’s say-so alone, of course, was not reason enough to eliminate the gas as a potential cause of the blast, it might have given reporters pause.