Consumer Reports is a publication that works hard to get things right. In its February issue it ran a dramatically wrong review of children’s car seats — flawed due to poor testing methods — and seriously jeopardized the trust it had won from its readers.
But the organization’s response since then has been the finest demonstration I’ve ever seen of a) owning up to the mistakes; b) figuring out what went wrong; c) explaining what happened; and d) putting into place ways to prevent future such messes.
And it was all done in a public way. This kind of transparency is extremely rare in journalism. Yet it is utterly essential.
Soon after the report — in which all kinds of child-safety car seats apparently failed the magazine’s tests — came under challenge, it became clear that the tests themselves were flawed. The response from the magazine to its readers and the world was quick. It issued a retraction.
I subscribe to the CR online site. I got an e-mail – and a friend who gets the paper version got the same letter via mail – from Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, the title’s parent. He apologized and sounded sincere. He explained what he knew so far about the error, apparently caused by an outside lab’s tests. He announced a further investigation. And he promised extraordinary efforts not to let it occur again.
I believe we’re getting all of this.
Yesterday, CR posted a detailed report, “How our car seat tests went wrong” — and the “series of misjudgments” described in the piece is remarkable. It was especially worrisome given the publication’s record. I don’t rely on CR for everything I buy, but I’ve learned to trust its overall judgement on uncomplicated consumer goods such as kitchen appliances, where I won’t ever take the time to do such research myself.
Yesterday’s report explained everything, in clear and unsparing language. It included justifiably angry comments from a car-seat maker and outside critics. It was self-criticism of the sort one almost never sees from a journalistic organization.
CR also posted a story called “Learning from our mistake,” a description of what it would do in the future. Among other things, the publication plans to bring outside experts into the process when creating complicated testing procedures (and already does that to a degree); fix the way it works with outside labs; and look much harder “when our findings are unusual.”
The last of those should have been second nature to the journalists and scientists at CR. After all, it’s famous for telling readers that when something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t. In this case – all those car seats failing the test – perhaps it was too bad to be true.
The magazine might consider opening its testing procedures in other ways. For example, it could create videos of the tests as they’re being conducted and post them online. Bring in the designated experts, by all means, but maybe some readers who are experts in their own way might spot something useful — an omission in the testing procedure or a valuable idea on how to improve it.
But let’s focus now on the essential things.
First, CR deserves points for integrity. I believe it had no alternative, but what the publication has done here had to be painful nonetheless.
Second, transparency has to become one of the key principles of honorable journalism. Let’s see more and more of this kind of thing.