The Frenzied Media
If Toyota indeed bears a heavy responsibility for its current predicament, does that mean the media get a pass? Surely not! From the last week of January 2010 through February 2010, as Toyota recalls mounted and as Congress held hearings, Toyota recall coverage ranked, in all but one week, among the top ten news stories across all media. This was an extraordinary amount of news coverage.
The media attention grew out of the legitimate contrast between Toyota's extraordinary quality reputation, the perceived threat to public safety, and the explosive growth in the number of cars being recalled. Roone Arledge, the legendary chief of ABC News, not long after taking over this post in 1977, remarked in his memoir, "I was itching for the world to have a crisis" so ABC could show what it could do. His hopes for a crisis, captures the appeal to the media of dramatic negative events. Toyota had its crisis and the media had its target. Those on top of the status and power hierarchy, who have failed to live up to their public reputations, offer an especially inviting target. This is the case, whether it is powerful business firms found to be corrupt (Enron), sports icons found to be behaving badly (Tiger Woods), or mighty automakers which built their reputation on quality, and then fail to live up to it (Toyota). These are, by nature, eminently newsworthy. Unintended acceleration appeared to threaten the safety of millions of individuals in every part of the country and there was initially no satisfactory explanation for its causes or fixes. The Toyota recalls constituted a truly national public safety story that had all the ingredients of a media sensation.
It was a feeding frenzy that fueled massive public concern. And yes many of these reports were inflammatory, often leading with accident victims stories: "If it bleeds, it leads." And yes, the media reports ignored the low probability of unintended acceleration. Generally, the media are terrible at handling probability. Negative events drive the news, not careful analyses of their likelihood.
The fiery high speed crash in Santee, California by a state trooper, Mark Saylor and family in August 2009, fueled public concern. Saylor's brother-in-law made a phone call: "We are in a Lexus... and our accelerator is stuck.... We're in trouble-we can't-there's no brakes... Hold on guys, pray pray, oh shoot oh! Oh!" A You Tube video, with the text of the conversation overlaid on a picture of the crash site, received more than 250,000 views. The death of the Saylor family became the human face of the Toyota recalls. The real time phone conversation had incredible power to move and frighten drivers. What could be scarier than losing control of your car at high speed? While stacked floor mats were thought to be the cause of the accident at the time, there was a lot of uncertainty. We now know that a dealer installed the wrong all weather floor mats in his loaner Lexus and failed to secure them properly, thereby creating the conditions for the crash.
To add to Toyota's woes, the cumulative Toyota recalls have got far more publicity than those of other automakers. In late October 2010, Toyota issued a voluntary recall on an additional 1.5 million cars globally to replace a brake master cylinder seal. This recall was followed a few days later by an even larger 2 million car recall by Nissan for ignition problems. Consider how these recalls were reported on msnbc.com. The Toyota article was 966 words and the Nissan article was 229. The Toyota article was entitled "Dark Clouds Gather Over Toyota After New Safety Setback." It contained many negative references to previous recalls such as "lurching from recall to recall" and "another black eye." The Nissan article, entitled, "Nissan Recalls 2 Million Cars Worldwide," provided a simple factual description of their recall. It even concluded with the observation that many automakers are experiencing large recalls because of the growing use of common components across multiple models, as if to suggest there was nothing unusual about Nissan's recall. The contrast in the respective treatments is striking. The relentless linking of each Toyota recall to previous ones could only have further increased the public's doubts about Toyota's quality.
There is no doubt that the media, especially with its focus on electronic problems as a possible cause of unintended acceleration, fueled public concerns about Toyota's quality problems and helped confirm in the minds of many, that Toyota has serious quality problems, With quality, consumer perception is all that matters and it means that Toyota has a huge challenge going forward.