Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Big Media v. Big Auto

Enough with the snow posts, I'm tired of it.

I was at the gym yesterday (today the gym closed at 10:00 am, of course, even though the Rite-Aid on the same block is open), and while there, I saw a CNN report on the Toyota recall. The thrust of it was that experts consulted by CNN question whether Toyota really understands what is causing the unwanted acceleration problem with its vehicles. CNN suggests that the problem stems from electronic devices causing interference with the engines' electronic controls. Toyota insists that the problem is mechanical and that they know how to fix it.

Watching the report, I got a sad sense of overhyping by CNN (the print version linked above is slightly more guarded than the video version I saw). It's difficult to know whom to trust. Toyota has an obvious incentive to say that it has solved the problem. So I appreciate that its statements have to be regarded with some suspicion, as CNN copiously pointed out. But what CNN didn't point out is that CNN itself also has distorting incentives. The story "Toyota doesn't really know what's wrong with its cars and is lying about it" attracts a lot more viewers than the story "Toyota has everything fixed -- just take your car in as per the recall and everything will be fine." So CNN has an incentive to promote those experts it can find who will say bad things about Toyota.

Watching the report, I got the sense that while the experts portrayed are skeptical of Toyota's statements, CNN was positively goading them into saying more than they really believed based on their expertise. It would have been more balanced if CNN had commented on its own incentives as well as Toyota's. It would have been nice if CNN made a statement about how many experts it consulted and whether their views were conflicting. Did every expert consulted by CNN think the electronic interefence theory was more probable than the mechanical pedal problem theory? Or did CNN cherry pick and only show those experts who had that view, ignoring those who thought Toyota had things right?

It's hard to know whom to believe, but I can't say for sure that I would trust CNN more than Toyota. CNN could have helped its own credibility with some added perspective on the trust issue.

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