former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Big News About GM Scandal: Small Media Splash

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2014 at 11:06 am

If you ever wanted to know what news fragmentation means, or what you have to do to be “big news” these days,  consider the small splash made last week by a story about the evolving scandal at General Motors.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story November 10.  CBS News, the Associated Press and The New York Times followed The Journal’s lead, reporting that General Motors, under intense public scrutiny for defective ignition switches that caused more than 30 deaths and scores of injuries, ordered up replacement parts more than two months before announcing the recall and contacting federal regulators.  The switches, if bumped, can cause a car to stall, affecting power steering, brakes and air bags. GM has recalled more than 2 million cars.

The news came out as a result of litigation that uncovered emails detailing the urgent order request to GM’s parts supplier in mid-December 2013.  Anton Valukas, the man commissioned by GM to report on the defect scandal, did not mention this delay in his report.  It’s not clear whether he knew about it.  GM CEO Mary Barra told a congressional committee that she did not know anything about the planned recall of the defective parts until the end of January 2014.  Some critics have questioned whether an urgent order for 500,000 replacement parts could have escaped Barra’s notice.  At the time, she was in charge of purchasing.

When one news outlet breaks a story, it may be downplayed by other outlets, but surely this story was newsworthy enough to have earned more attention. Unfortunately, it appears the story was a one-day phenomenon that easily could have been missed by the average news consumer.

The news did not reach the front pages of most major newspapers, and largely was relegated to the business pages. The New York Times consigned its catch-up story, published in the print edition on Nov. 11, to page B-4. (Overall, however, The Times has covered the scandal very aggressively and well.)

If you read The Washington Post, you’d be left with only the AP story that ran in the paper’s business section.

If you tuned into NBC Nightly News, the story wasn’t covered at all.  It doesn’t appear to have made ABC World News Tonight either.

It’s possible I have not seen all the stories, but overall it would be easy to miss the fact that GM’s scandal has widened, and the auto maker could have warned owners and the government two months sooner.  True, it could not have offered a replacement part, but it could have instructed drivers about the potential dangers and how best to address them. (For example, by not attaching the ignition key to a heavy key chain.)

And I haven’t seen any follow-up stories exploring why the company kept quiet for two months, whether Barra knew, and how federal prosecutors will factor this delay into their investigation of the company. Does this further erode the credibility of the Valukas report?

Aside from Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s statement reacting to the news, it doesn’t appear that members of Congress are curious either.

Are we readers so indifferent to corporate wrongdoing that we no longer have any appetite for this coverage?  Or have the people in charge of major media outlets decided that this type of coverage isn’t worth the effort?

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