John Ambler: Series about railroad safety was unfair

  • Updated: December 14, 2010 - 10:21 AM

The Star Tribune distorted the facts about BNSF, but the truth is available.

Commentary by John Ambler
BNSF Railway

We believe that a free press has a responsibility to cover important issues of public safety, and that there is an equally important responsibility to provide readers with fair and accurate reporting.

The Star Tribune's recent series on BNSF and the railroad's record on public safety, employee safety and conduct in court has been neither fair nor accurate. Instead, it is a disservice to Star Tribune readers, our company and our 38,000 employees.

The Society of Professional Journalists in its Code of Ethics calls upon journalists to diligently seek and fairly represent both sides of the story, to test the accuracy of information from all sources and to exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.

Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

Yet deliberate distortion is precisely what the Star Tribune has done, not only in its Dec. 5-8 series but also in stories published since 2008 about the Anoka train-car collision, the trial and the granting to BNSF of a new trial due to a lack of fairness.

In its Dec. 7 story, for example, the Star Tribune suggests to readers that the train's engineer was the only witness to this tragic accident. That is absolutely false.

The Star Tribune knows that there were five eyewitnesses, including an active-duty Coon Rapids police officer, all of whom testified that the gates and lights were working at the Anoka crossing.

But the Star Tribune obstinately has cast blame on BNSF for this accident, blinding itself and its readers from the truth -- eyewitness testimony, accident data, and a State Patrol investigation that concluded the driver drove around the properly functioning crossing gate.

Similarly, in its Dec. 6 story, the Star Tribune uses a 17-year-old case, in which BNSF was found to have zero percent culpability, to suggest that a judge's criticisms of BNSF had some validity despite the fact that the same judge reversed himself and then recused himself.

But the most egregious journalistic misconduct by the Star Tribune occurred on Dec. 5 and Dec. 8. In those reports, the Star Tribune went back to highly contentious cases that occurred over the past two decades, stringing together unrepresentative and isolated incidents to imply that the BNSF does not care about public safety, employee safety or integrity in court.

The record clearly refutes this.

Cases in which BNSF's conduct has been criticized in court represent a tiny fraction of a percent of cases involving the railroad. More important, the suggestion that BNSF does not care about employee safety is flatly disproved by federal employee injury data, which document the railroad's superior safety record.

The truth -- omitted from the Star Tribune's reporting -- is that in 2009 BNSF's injury rate record was better (2.0 per 200,000 employee hours) than the railroad industry in general (2.2) and far better than comparable businesses, such as mining (3.2), heavy and civil engineering construction (3.8), and forestry and logging (4.0).

In fact, BNSF's safety record is 26 percent better than that of newspaper publishers (2.7), which includes the Star Tribune and other newspapers.

The isolated incidents that the Star Tribune has myopically and misleadingly selected do not accurately portray our company, our culture or our people.

We are proud to have many third- and fourth-generation employees and several dedicated railroaders each year who mark 50 years of service.

It is an insult to our employees and to readers' intelligence to suggest that the more than 100,000 employees who have worked for BNSF over four decades would knowingly engage in unsafe and inappropriate activities or encourage their children and grandchildren to work in a place that allows such conduct.

To learn the truth about BNSF's record and the errors and omissions in the Star Tribune's coverage, we urge the public to go to www.bnsf.com/casefacts.

John Ambler is vice president, corporate relations, BNSF Railway Co.

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