Stats help Star-Ledger unearth more railroad deaths

by January 31, 2011

Star-Ledger reporter Mark Mueller found that the railroad industry has made little progress in reducing the deaths of trespassers on its tracks. Photo by Flickr user dreamer..

Mark Mueller of The Star-Ledger in New Jersey tracked statistics about fatalities in the railroad industry and produced a story with an attention-grabbing lede:

“Be it accident or suicide, the railroad industry has made little headway in reducing the number of trespasser fatalities.

After all these years, Tom Donovan can’t shake the sound.

“Like hitting a pumpkin,” he says.

It’s the sound of a 400-ton train striking human flesh, a person who, just moments before, had been walking and talking and breathing.”

Mark’s piece won an Eddie Award from Folio: last week, recognizing editorial excellence in magazines. The story appeared in Inside Jersey magazine.

Today’s Tip: Double-check the statistics, Mark says.

Mark says he spent a lot of time trying to determine why there were major differences in the state numbers versus the federal numbers. Then he learned there were no strict rules about reporting suicides.

“Some railroads do report. Some don’t. And some do intermittently. That told me my numbers were low by an order of hundreds,” he says. “I was then able to point out to readers it was a far larger problem than the industry has let on.”

Mark also encourages writers to humanize their stories as much as possible. “My story could have been a pretty dry numbers story, but the emotion of the engineers who go through this and the back stories of some of the people who chose to die on the tracks made the piece a lot more interesting,” he says.