Bridging the News Gap in East Palestine, Ohio

A year ago, national media outlets descended on East Palestine, Ohio, after a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the rural Columbiana County village on Feb. 3, 2023. The consequences are still unfolding, but as national media have moved onto covering other stories, a news gap has emerged. Four Kent State journalism seniors have been filling that gap, with support from Grist and the Center for Rural Strategies.

“There are a lot of people that live in rural areas, and they deserve the same amount and quality of coverage as anybody else,” said Media and Journalism Professor Jacqueline Marino. “What our students are doing is top rate, and if we didn’t get this grant, and do this work, I don’t think that anybody would have ever covered this.”

Journalism majors Mariah Alanskas, ’24, Sophia Lucente, ’23, Grace Springer, ’23 and Sophie Young, ’23,  have been actively visiting East Palestine, interviewing residents and political figures. Marino, who has been mentoring the students, says the students have created comprehensive narratives shedding light on the outcome and updates of the derailment. Their work aims to inform the public about the aftermath while amplifying the voices of those directly impacted by the incident.

Grist and the Center for Rural Strategies awarded $100,000 to newsrooms and freelance journalists to cover rural reporting projects several months ago, and Kent State’s Collaborative NewsLab was one of 15 recipients selected. NewsLab was established in 2020 to provide mentored and paid professional reporting experiences for Media and Journalism students, while also connecting under-resourced professional media partners with quality, reliable coverage focused on local communities and issues.

Students’ investigative stories involve the emergence of new railroad regulations and legislative actions prompted by the disaster. They’ve also covered the enduring mental health effects on East Palestine residents — some of whom are still living in hotels — the disposal of hazardous materials post-environmental crises, specific training procedures for fire departments, mainly focusing on volunteer fire departments, like East Palestine’s, and new inspection technology being implemented by Norfolk Southern.

Ideastream Public Media published the stories in December 2023. Students had the opportunity to visit the Cleveland newsroom to record their narratives.

While granted the autonomy to pursue their chosen narratives independently, the students receive guidance and counsel from Professor Marino and Media and Journalism Instructor Rosalie (Rosie) Murphy, a professional journalist. Ideastream’s Andrew Meyer (Deputy Editor – News) and Kent State alumna Abigail Bottar (Reporter/Producer), are also regularly working with the students.

“Rosie is a great editor; she helps us figure out the angle of the story and the way to get what we’re trying to convey, and Andrew also helps with this,” said Young, one of the student reporters. “We’re treated like adults, and they’re so respectful and helpful.”

Students have learned skills beyond conventional journalism, such as audio recording, script writing and broadcasting. They’re also learning how to truly think like reporters —  not students in reporting class, who need to get the professor’s approval for everything.

“We did have ideas that we wanted pursued, but they’re on their own doing stuff, and we’re just checking in, helping and guiding them,” said Marino. “But there’s this great confidence that I’m seeing in them that I didn’t see a year or two ago, that’s very exciting from a professor standpoint.”

Young, in particular, has found an avenue in journalism she may not have previously considered with her past semester work. She was excited when she learned NewsLab had received the grant from Grist because she’d been following the organization for a while on X (formerly Twitter).

“To have real-world experience while in college makes you so much more marketable and teaches you about yourself and your career,” said Young, “I wouldn’t know where to go or what to do if I didn’t have the experience I had.”

In addition to being published by Ideastream and across the Ohio Newsroom’s extensive network of NPR affiliates, the stories have been published on the NewsLab website under a Creative Commons license.

“I think the most valuable part is learning how to do long investigative projects, and I'm grateful (for) the opportunity to work on this,” said student reporter Lucente.

POSTED: Monday, November 27, 2023 01:00 PM
Updated: Thursday, February 1, 2024 04:46 PM
Eve Krejci, '24