Are motoring journalists biased?
Motoring journalists get to travel the world testing cars, and while we all have pet cars, what you think of as bias in motoring journalism probably isn’t.
IT ALWAYS AMAZES me that Mr Miffed of Melbourne can read something, then leap in a single bound to the keyboard, hands trembling in anger and spittle flecking the screen to fire off a flame-filled email that scorches its way across the Internet to strike a righteous blow to the most evil of evils, the Biased Journalist.
By the way, very rarely do journalists respond to these accusations, mainly because they would do very little else if they did and quite frankly, some of these people are scary and not just because they don’t often see the light of day.
But to be fair, most accusations are far more considered (if less entertaining) and for every person that writes in, posts on a forum, or has a chat to his mates about bias, then many more must hold the same views. So, the issue of bias is of concern to the readers, and that means it’s of concern to me as the readers pay me, and that is why I’m attempting to address it here.
I should add that this piece is of course my personal opinion, as it is not possible to speak on behalf of all creatures as egocentric as journalists any more than it is possible to herd cats.
But before we begin, let’s make sure we’re clear about the meaning of bias:
- a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; –Dictionary.com
- an inclination to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of (possibly equally valid) alternatives –Wikipedia.com
- f***’in bias is the f***’in definition of f***’in journalists — Large sweaty bloke I overheard
in other words, prejudice, favouritism, unfairly pushing a given perspective and selective interpretation of the facts to fit a preferred view. Bias exists in all humans, and most journalists are humans so they too have their biases. But what appears to be bias may not be bias at all.
Errors are not the same as bias, in the same way ignorance is not the same as malice. Readers must differentiate between the two before accusing anyone of bias. For example if a car has a wonderful feature that the journo doesn’t mention, that’s probably carelessness or ignorance rather than wilful omission of a positive specifcally intended to cast one car in a favourable or unfavourable light.
There are also typographical errors and ignorance errors, for example quoting a 4500kg GVM vs a 3500kg GVM is probably a typo, but continually talking about traction control when what is meant is stability control is ignorance. Or perhaps it’s sheer, rank stupidity. Anyway, it’s not bias. Spelling has the same issue, for example if someone uses “principle” where they should use “principal” then you can assume they are ignorant of the word’s meaning, but a typo like princpl is carelessness.
By all means rip into journos for errors, carelessness or ignorance, but remember that’s unlikely to be bias. And before you rip in..make sure the journo has indeed made a mistake and it’s not your understanding that needs correcting. Readers have been known to be wrong. Possibly because they read the wrong journalist.
Depth. A typical car test may be for a weekend, or for a week, or a press launch where you’re basically prevented from finding out anything negative about the car. These tests aren’t long enough to truly learn a vehicle and explore its full capabilities, which is why magazines use long-term test vehicles. Therefore, the reviewer may not have had the chance to drive in the wet to pick up on the superbly sculpted windscreen wipers and their pleasingly sensual rhythm across the glass. That’s not bias, it’s just a lack of time and resources and unfortunately that means some useful points in a review may be missed, but it does leave owners who know the car well wondering how on earth such wonderful attributes could possibly be omitted.
Many people who read car reviews are enthusiasts. They may be in a club, frequent marque-specific forums or have carried out extensive research. They can quickly attain a depth of expertise in a vehicle a journalist cannot match, even if the journo specialsies in a given vehicle type such as offroaders, far less a generic motoring hack.
Breadth. You might think your LC200 is a pretty sharp handler, if you’ve come from older Prados, utes or the 76 Series. But if you try driving a Pajero, D4 or better yet a Rangie Sport or Cayenne and then you’ll see the difference. This isn’t to say the 200 is bad, but it can’t be described as a market leader on the dynamics front any more than Microsoft can be described as cool and innovative. Most journos get a wider opportunity to drive vehicles than the average buyer, and reviews reflect that. Imagine growing up in a country where there are no pictures of Cameron Diaz and then watching Something About Mary. Your whole perspective of beauty is instantly adjusted.
Statistical sources. You can find information on vehicles in the owners’ handbook, the website, in press releases, through conversations with manufacturer representatives and by your own observations. And very rarely, some of the details actually marry up across all of the sources. So there’s quite a chance of getting it wrong, and to be fair there may be multiple “right” answers depending on perspective, trim level or other factors. So sometimes reviews carry the information, and sometimes readers miss the detail themselves, read the data incorrectly or miss the context. Again, that’s not bias but it can be interpreted as such. My method is to cross-check all data against at least two sources and sanity-check it as well. I know, for example, that a maximum towball mass is more likely to be 250kg than 450kg and that ground clearance of 350mm is pretty unlikely for any stock offroader.
Trim level information can also change rapidly, ageing a review, and as for pricing… well the industry and state government have combined to make it difficult to say exactly what a given car will cost so journalists either have to be vague or devote many precious words to explaining the various price structures. My view is that journos should use the wordcount on factors the buyer cannot determine for themselves such as driving impressions instead of simply regurgitating stats that are available to anyone with a few minutes and a web browser or can be discovered with a phone call to your local dealer.
Criticising a design feature isn’t marque bias. For example, some journos have gone hard on low-profile tyres on offroad vehicles. Some readers have interpreted this as bias against the Discovery 4, which is the principal vehicle mentioned, and by extension Land Rover who make it, and from there you can extrapolate to European manufacturers or as far as you like till Godwin’s Law kicks in. All wrong, that’s drawing a conclusion too far.
You may or may not disagree with the journo’s view about a design feature, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s always brand bias at the root. Having an opinion about a design feature isn’t even bias, it is opinion which changes as facts change. Otherwise, all opinion would be bias. If the opinion doesn’t change as the facts change as cars develop then that’s indeed bias, and yes some journo’s opinions do take longer to change than it takes to bring a new model to market.
Strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve bought a car then you clearly value the car’s strengths and can live with the weaknesses, and yes fanbois, whatever you drive does have a weakness or two. Therefore, reading a review which doesn’t value the strengths as highly as you do, or makes more of the weaknesses than you feel appropriate is likely to make you think the review is biased. A good example is the Land Rover Defender, if you can’t live with the seating position you’re stuffed. Reviewers have to consider that regardless of whether they personally can live with it or not. Reviewers also have the advantage of not having invested emotionally or financially in a vehicle and therefore do not need to continually self-justify the investment to themselves.
It’s not just about you. A big part of a review is putting yourself in different shoes. For a 4WD that could be as diverse a range as a grey nomad couple or a young family who often buy the same car but have quite different requirements. Let me tell you, as a parent your perspective on cars really does change, and when I’m on a grey-nomad SKI trip I reckon my perspective will change again. Right now I have to imagine being a grumpy old bastard of sixty, but luckily I have numerous role models to follow.
What’s the evaluation for? Maybe a really, really good car lost a comparo. That might be because it’s just not very good when considered against the comparison criteria, which might be quite narrow. For example, the XC90 is a superb vehicle but in an offroad test it’d have to be up against some pretty ordinary competition, such as three-wheel shopping trolleys, to come even mid-field.
When I review offroad vehicles I tend to do so from the perspective of a touring offroader. It takes seconds to determine if a car has a space-saver spare or lacks recovery points, and if that’s the case then the car is automatically off to a very bad start for an offroad evaluation. The cost of the car and fuel consumption are noted, but not critical factors as offroaders tend to want the “right” car with money as a secondary factor.
But if I was reviewing for Parents Runabout Monthly then silly spare tyres wouldn’t be much of a problem, but running costs, turning circles, height to get into carparks would become priorities. And I probably wouldn’t bother looking under the bonnet to assess room for a dual battery.
Rationale. Very often a statement may be made in a review, and there’s simply not space to get into the detail as to why the statement is made. For example, some say that nobody complained when the Prado moved to an 17″ rim size, so why the fuss about Discos on 19s? That’s not actually true, some did complain (but by no means many), but here’s more detail. Moving from 16 to 17″ rims still leaves a lot of rubber on the ground. A move to 19″ leaves a lot less. Also, the Prado and others that were moving to 17s at the time are mass-market 4WDs so the expectation was tyres would quickly follow, and they did. The 19″-only vehicles are much less common and thus tyres haven’t followed as quickly. The D4 also runs slightly smaller diameter wheels to the Prado, further increasing the problem, and its stock tyres are less bushworthy than the Prado’s stock tyres. So the 17-19 comparison isn’t entirely the same in my view, but I can’t explain that detailed logic in a review or every time the subject comes up in print.
Coverage bias. Publications and websites reflect what readers wants, or rather what the editorial staff think readers want (but that’s a whole new post). So there’s not many articles about how to trick up your Terracan, Sportage, Sorento, Cayenne or Touareg? That’d be because those vehicles are a minority relative to Toyota, Land Rover and Nissan drivers. It’s simply reflecting the market. If that’s a “bias” towards covering certain marques, then yes magazines do have a bias from that perspective, and for quite acceptable, sound commercial reasons.
What isn’t acceptable is a bias against positive coverage of a marque when it is covered, allowing personal prejudices to override clear-headed judgement, but that’s different from a bias in coverage.
A high-end bias? Manufacturers typically put high-end cars on the press fleet as it is not economically viable to run a fleet of every combination. Therefore, journos have to imagine the luxo car without some luxo features. This is easier than running a base model and imagining it does have luxo features! It doesn’t mean the review is biased towards luxury features. And there’s no choice in the car colour either, by the way.
Opinion vs review. Some journos write opinion columns, and that’s where they’re free and indeed encouraged to let loose with their own personal views, biases, prejudices and whatever else will entertain, amuse, infuriate or educate the readers (or preferably all at once!). That same journo may also write a review, but in doing so must retain a demonstrably fair perspective free of bias. However, the reader doesn’t always draw a distinction between the personal view and professional view. It’s just like the police who have to enforce laws regardless of their personal view on the matter, but may have opinions they share with their mates down the pub.
The problem for journos is making that distinction clear to the readers and separating the two types of writing. I know some journos very keen on specific marques who have an admirably open mind when they do reviews. For my part, my bias is towards what I consider cool and interesting vehicles regardless of marque, which is not the same as good vehicles. Another topic for another time.
Advertising bias. This is bias that creeps in through wanting to avoid upsetting advertisers, or less often to actively please advertisers. The extent to which this bias exists is a factor of the combined attitudes of the advertiser, publisher, editor and the journalist. In some magazines advertising does not influence a review outcome at all, but there are other cases where it has done so. But put it this way, in the low-stakes world of most journalism there aren’t briefcases of untraceable notes being exchanged behind closed doors, nor large fellows in cheap suits with middle names of “..the..” calling in unannounced on journos around midnight. Regardless of the actual type of bias or error, readers do tend to consider most differences with their opinion as advertising bias.
Advertising coverage. A distinction must be made again between coverage and opinion; giving an advertiser’s product or brand extra exposure does not necessarily mean giving them unwarranted praise. For example, journalists frequently use subject matter experts for technical articles and often these are drawn from advertisers, whose brands are mentioned in context, or an advertiser’s product may be critically reviewed.
Advert first, or editorial? Very often in my own experience I decided which products should be reviewed, and after I’d done so the ad guys would zoom, and so it was that an advert appeared close to the review. This isn’t a good look, but it’s commercially necessary and readers would sometimes draw the reverse conclusion that the editorial was as a result of the ad.
However, often advertisers ask for editorial coverage. It is up to the editorial team to decide if and when this should happen, and my view is that’s all fine provided there is a useful story and the mag’s resources are best expended on that product as opposed to some other product from a non-advertiser.
What nobody in their right mind wants the sycophantic feature gushing uncritically over a product or stating the bleeding obvious “…a snorkel so you can wade…” really! well, knock me down with a dusty air filter.
Mature PR people realise these suckup jobs are actually likely to damage the reputation of both the product’s brand and the magazine that carries the article , whereas the proper reviews with good and bad points build solid credibility for the product and the magazine. Yet we do see these articles from time to time and I cringe when I read them.
Reader rants. Readers often comment through the red mist of indignation having read just a word or two, anchoring their views with one or two statements. My favourite spray against me which also exposes some not unusual paranoia about why accessory manufacturers are “against” some vehicles. They aren’t, and I explain why here (doff your tinfoil hat before reading).
Reader bias reflected.
Journos have to write for their readers, and if the readership holds a certain view then the journo may well pander to that view, regardless of their own opinion or the facts, and that’s bias even though the reader may not recognise it. The same is true of writing style; you may need to write in a matey, blokey, politically-incorrect informal sort of way, or change tack to more refined style. Have a read of a lad’s mag vs a business magazine to compare, it’s all about indentifying with the reader. I agree with the style point but I don’t agree with changing opinion or attempting to reflect the readers’ bias.
Not just a dry report. Magazine articles need to be entertaining as well as factual. Therefore, journos use superlatives, analogies, even – shock horror – the odd jibe or snide remark. Jeremy Clarkson takes this to extremes by using about 90% of his car review wordcount for ranting on about lemons, railways, his Aga, famous people he’s recently met or whatever other flotsam is floating through his brain before briefly mentioning his assessment of the car itself. Readers need to remember this entertainment perspective, so when I described the Discovery 3 as “an obese, but skilled ballerina” it was for entertainment value. No offence meant to pointy-footed dancers, fat people or Land Rover. I could have said “handles well for its size and weight” but that’s not as much fun. And I could have made the points above without talking about Clarkson, or started this piece without invoking an image of an irate reader. Journos have to liven things up and sometimes that means caricature, so take that in context. It’s not bias, any more than your mate having a crack at you is a real insult.
And readers, you’re also not meant to take these analogies literally. So when I said as one drives a Lotus Elise you look for an apex and all you can see is the bulging eyes of grasshoppers peering down at you from atop the roadside grass stalks…that was a lie. Their eyes don’t bulge.
I also presume those journos who talk of sexual excitement during a drive are, in fact, exaggerating. And we will leave that topic there, now I’ve left you with some delightful imagery.
When all is said and done, and all the cliches have been used, it is true that many reviews are less than perfect. But the fact is that’s almost always as a result of carelessness or unintentional errors.
What’s thankfully rare is the intentionally biased any journo who sets out to deliberately mislead or push a point of view, and that’s simply because they tend not to last long in the industry.
There is some interesting reading about bias here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases. You’ll recognise quite a few of the concepts described here.