4) Some news outlets—often on opinion pages—made sweeping calls for more regulation without clarifying for readers the existing regulations and the company’s compliance with them, the enforcement responsibilities of the patchwork of agencies involved (which agencies had safety responsibilities versus, say, national security or environmental oversight) or acknowledging that industrial accident (preventable or not) was not the only possible explanation. The New York Times ran an op-ed on April 20 that compared the West explosion to the Texas City disaster, which claimed 600 lives in 1947, and threaded them together as consequences of the same “pathological avoidance of oversight.” But ammonium nitrate has been subject to federal regulation and oversight since the 1970s. Elsewhere, explainers from ProPublica and StateImpact, a project of National Public Radio, acknowledged that many facts were still unknown but framed the explosion as a clear regulatory failure. In-state, the Houston Chronicle editorialized that the accident was “entirely preventable.” In a variety of accounts—including this April 29 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece—the EPA (responsible for environmental quality) was conflated without explanation with OSHA (responsible for workplace safety).
With the narrative of preventable industrial accident set, confirmation bias set in. Every past regulatory slip at the West facility was examined as a step on the way to the April 17blast—even though one August 2006 visit by officials led to both a fine and construction of a wall to better protect the anhydrous ammonium tanks. Once again, a local news organization had that detail: WFAA, owned by Belo Corp.
5) Meanwhile, information that ran contrary to that prevailing narrative was sidelined. An April 24 USA Today editorial stated that investigators “seem to have ruled out a deliberate attack” (They had not.). On May 10, that paper’s news pages reported that law enforcement officials had “launched a criminal investigation.” In fact, the blast site had been treated as a possible crime scene all along. The facility was not a factory, as some reported. And fire crews spraying water on the fire did not worsen the explosion as some early reports speculated. You could learn all this by reading the one outlet that was getting it routinely right, The Dallas Morning News.
A strong showing in Dallas
From the outset, the big Dallas paper—owned by A. H. Belo Corp., a 2008-spin-off from Belo Corp.—had advantages.
Serving the country’s ninth largest city, and with a newsroom still numbering in the hundreds, the Morning News was the closest big news organization to the explosion. It had expertise ranging from a computer-assisted reporting team to an environmental writer to editors experienced with crashes, explosions, and investigations. And while the paper moved fast—breaking more accurate stories than anyone—it moved deliberately.
“I guess,” says editor Bob Mong, “we’ve been conservatively aggressive.”
The paper began searching regulatory records in the first few hours after the explosion, uncovering the company’s EPA report about its anhydrous ammonia—an early indicator of the paper’s ability to get hard information fast but to treat it carefully. It maintained two reporters in West to follow the story, even as investigators revealed very little, while a larger team back in Dallas filed open records requests and mapped out for readers 44 other locations in Texas where potentially dangerous fertilizers are stored. The paper also sketched out the patchwork of agencies that have responsibility in incidents like these, making investigations—and reporting on them—that much more complicated. And rather than jumping to argue for new rules, in that same piece the Morning News pointed out that existing rules were not being enforced. From Washington to West, wrote environmental writer Randy Lee Loftis, “the system broke down.”
Loftis was given carte blanche to cover the range of possible causes, from oversight failure to regulatory shortcomings to even simple fire prevention measures the company itself might have taken to prevent or at least mitigate the disaster, like installing a sprinkler system and paying for a $200 fire inspection—but only after confirming that the company had not installed such a system.