By Julie Karceski
NICAR Data Analyst
One year later, and we’re back where we started.
The one-year anniversary of the Minnesota bridge collapse, Aug. 1, sparked a flurry of articles -- more than 100 in the anniversary week -- reflecting on the event. Many revealed that bridges in certain states are in worse condition now than one year ago.
Newspapers across the country published stories with updates on the victims and investigations into what caused the collapse. Many journalists also put a local angle on the anniversary by investigating bridges in their own communities and bringing public safety into question.
Data on bridges, including details such as age and inspection dates, were widely used in these stories.
Pam Sohn from the Chattanooga Times Free Press used a combination of data from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and NICAR for her story published Aug. 1. This was not the first time she had written about bridge safety. Two years ago, her paper investigated bridge safety in Tennessee with data from NICAR.
“About one year after our story, the collapse occurred,” she said. “We looked back and localized it using the data we had before.”
This year, Sohn wrote about the status of bridges in Chattanooga and the planning for repairs. Her story revealed that five out of Tennessee’s twenty -- or one in four -- highly-trafficked, “structurally-deficient” bridges are located in Chattanooga.
In preparation for increased attention on bridge safety, the Tennessee Department of Transportation released PDF documents on bridge inspections in the state.
“This time the Tennessee DOT did a little homework of their own- a preemptive strike,” Sohn said. “It showed where the worst bridges in the state were.”
Ariel Hart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also emphasized the importance of data in writing a story about bridge safety.
“You can’t just say it’s been a year since that bridge fell down,” Hart said. She published a story detailing how bridge ratings in Georgia have gotten worse in the past year, despite heightened attention on bridge safety.
Hart got the data for her story from the Georgia Department of Transportation. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s computer-assisted reporting specialist, Megan Clarke, calculated the bridge numbers for the state and gave Hart a few story angles to work from.
“Data made it a news story,” she said. “A big part of the picture has gotten worse. We have more structurally deficient bridges this year. That led us into the background about the budget crunch.”
Darryl Isherwood from The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., scrolled through the 25,000 bridges listed in the Pennsylvania DOT Web site to provide context to his bridge anniversary story. He, like Hart, was struck by the fact that the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state had risen over the past year.
“One hundred more bridges are listed,” he said. “It made for an obvious story. It was just a matter of calling a few people.”
Isherwood used a spreadsheet do the calculations and spoke with state officials about the budget problems responsible for the increased number of structurally-deficient bridges.
“Having that data there, I was able to find a couple of bridges to focus on,” he said. “The data just made the numbers pop.”