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Why News Outlets Continue to Get Car Stories Wrong

George Kennedy

Earlier this year, Jeep refused a to issue a recall for 2.7 million Grand Cherokee and Liberty models. The American automaker claimed that its vehicles, “met and exceeded all applicable requirements.” It was only after news of the refusal went national that Jeep eventually relinquished. The only problem is, this kind of thing happens all the time– every time a safety complaint is lodged, a discussion takes place between the automakers and doesn’t always result in recall. Had the refusal not made national news, the recall may not have happened, and the odds of it having an effect on your daily life would be scant.

It reminds me of the Toyota recall from several years back, and the ultimate news hysteria that blew what many automotive experts suspected as user error and placebo effect into a national scandal. Our own Craig Fitzgerald wrote about this a couple years ago. Fitz wrote:

“Ross — whom Gawker has named “America’s Wrongest Reporter” – won the Murrow award despite the fact that Gawker called him out for faking the video that he edited, using video of a racing tachometer shot in a parked, idling car to heighten the drama. The footage he eventually reedited and updated on ABC’s website shows the tachometer from another vehicle, which apparently Ross felt best made his point.”

RELATED: What happens during a recall?

The fact is, news anchors are not car experts, just like they are not financial gurus. Consider that when a story involving fluctuations in the stock market break, news outlets turn to a financial expert. Same for politics and sports, and their respective political correspondent and sports editor.

1986 Audi 90

But when a story breaks that involves cars, just because the news producer and anchors drive a car every day, they think it somehow makes them experts on automotive news. This is part of how the public becomes so misinformed about automobiles and automotive stories.

When the Toyota-Unintended-Acceleration story broke, 60 Minutes actually had engineers recreate the problem on camera. They did not capture a random occurrence, but created the conditions that made the car accelerate. It was far from ‘unintended.’

RELATED: Chrysler Ignores NHTSA’s Request For Jeep Recall

But the footage was in the system, and news outlets, eager to report on the issue and devoid of any depth of automotive knowledge, simply regurgitated the findings from the 60 Minutes report, along with the footage they captured. The result is that when a major automotive story breaks, the people that most Americans get their news from are the least informed.

But consider the advertisements when the news kicks to a commercial break. How many automakers and local dealerships have spots amongst those ads? Automobile manufacturers are one of the largest spenders when it comes to ad revenue, and that’s what keeps the lights on at TV stations, newspapers, radio stations, and news outlets of every kind. Why ruin that by providing a drawn out, accurate depiction of a particular recall or incident.

Toyota Prius

Newscasters have no idea that recalls happen all the time, or that it’s an open discussion between safety regulators and the automakers. That requires a complicated explanation, and the current news machine does not work that way. As a story is broken down into more minute details it becomes more drawn out, and less black and white. In turn, a sensationalistic news story is one that over-simplifies and puts everything into a convenient box, without considering the vast amount of grayness in the middle. This is the treatment given to all news stories, it’s just that a political story at least has pundits on either side of the argument– the automotive tale has none.

So what is the point, then, if we know that the full story will never get told? This could be an elaborate plea to encourage news outlets to start hiring more automotive experts to weigh in on stories. If you are reading this, then you are on are site, and thus, already more informed about the automotive world than the next guy or gal. So stay informed, and encourage those around you to look past the bite size headlines, and get the real story the next time a recall or car-related scandal makes national news. It’s time you use being an automotive know-it-all for the forces of good!