What ever happened to consumer reporting?

What ever happened to consumer reporting?

Lieberman, Trudy

In mid-July the Albany Times Union featured these stories on its Friday consumer page: SANDALS: SENSUOUS SHOES FOR SUMMER; PROPER JEANS CAN BE IN STYLE IN THE WORKPLACE; and BUTTONS: NEW ONES ARE MORE DURABLE. A week later the consumer page ran: ‘NYPD BLUE’ COPS 26 EMMY NOMINATIONS.

Consumer journalism once meant something quite different at the Times Union, largely because of the exemplary reporting of long-time staffer Irene Gardner Keeney. In 1989, for example, she discovered that timing belts on 1985 to 1987 model Subarus were breaking before the expected life of the belts ran out. Subaru claimed they were a “wear” item, therefore not covered by the normal warranty. Nevertheless, Subaru told the Times Union it had sent mass mailings to car owners telling them it would pay the full cost of replacing the belts. Keeney reported that Albany-area residents had never heard of these so-called “secret warranties.” Many had paid for the repairs themselves. After Keeney’s story hit, a few local Subaru dealers said they would replace the timing belts before they broke if consumers complained. Six weeks later, Subaru announced it would notify 500,000 car owners that it would replace the timing belts, whether or not they had failed. This was old-fashioned consumer reporting with a bite.

Over at WNYT, the NBC affiliate in Albany, good consumer reporting once meant pieces that, for example, showed how Fay’s and Caldor, two large local retailers, were engaging in bait and switch tactics–offering goods for sale and then not having them available. Today the station has no full-time consumer reporter. The closest thing to regular consumer reporting is an occasional segment called “Gadgets, Gimmicks, and Gizmos,” which tests various products on camera to see if they live up to their claims. Some recent examples: banana peelers and rotaters for toothpaste tubes.

Such is the new world of consumer journalism. What has happened in Albany parallels what has happened in scores of other cities that once had lively competition among media outlets for consumer news. For the most part and for a variety of reasons, consumer reporting has fizzled out. The only consistently bright spot for hard-hitting pieces is prime-time TV newsmagazines, which have used hidden cameras to pick up some classic examples of consumer betrayal: unsafe products, overcharges and waste by medical suppliers, and not-so-wholesome food. Here competition is fierce to be on the air first with hard-hitting stories about health, safety, government waste, and marketplace fraud, which networks have found provoke viewer outrage and, not incidentally, promote good ratings. That kind of tough stuff used to be standard fare in daily papers, despite a very basic internal conflict.

“Publishers have never had much enthusiasm for consumer reporting,” says J. Edward Murray, a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who as associate editor of the Detroit Free Press nurtured consumer reporting in the early 1970s. “It’s always been a head-on collision with advertisers. Advertisers want to make the most optimistic claims for their products and that is at cross purposes with honest consumer reporting. Both should be of service to the buying public, but they both can’t be.”

Nonetheless, reporters and publications have tried, and have established a long tradition that goes back to the first decade of this century, when muckrakers unearthed scandalous conditions in meat-packing plants and revealed the excesses of the emerging corporate giants. In the 1940s, consumer reporting told shoppers how to get the most for their wartime dollars and pushed for price controls. In the 1960s and 1970s, consumer reporting was energized by an active consumer movement that began in 1962 with President Kennedy’s proclamation of consumers’ four rights–the right to be heard; the right to be informed; the right to safety; and the right to choose. The momentum slowed when, in 1978, legislation to create a federal consumer protection agency was defeated and never really picked up steam again.

The consumer movement rose with a generally upbeat economy that made businesses less sensitive to criticism and newspapers less nervous about ad revenues. Editors felt free to publish lists from government agencies citing businesses that violated particular laws and regulations. In the 1970s The New York Times, for example, regularly published names of restaurants that ran afoul of health department inspectors. Papers in Louisville, Dayton, and Wichita prodded local health departments to make such reports public.

During the same period, the Detroit Free Press editorialized against unfair practices in consumer credit contracts and pushed for a requirement that retailers sell safety glass for use in hazardous locations. The St. Petersburg Times, which Advertising Age called “damn gutsy” for testing claims for products advertised on TV, refused $235,000 of ad revenue from a local appliance dealer after publishing a story that documented the store’s deceptive selling tactics.

In 1970, Sales Management magazine noted that there were at least fifty full-time consumer reporters and some twenty-five newspaper action-line columns whose core business was solving consumer problems. The term consumer reporting had come to mean regular hard-hitting pieces that uncovered and named names of businesses that engaged in fraudulent or deceptive practices. Sometimes reporters critiqued regulatory agencies that were doing a poor job of protecting consumers. Sometimes they pushed for new laws to correct marketplace abuse. The focus was always on the individual consumer struggling against powerful economic forces, a theme that is often lacking in today’s reportage.

Who can use “news you can use”?

A tension always existed between hard-hitting reporting and how-to pieces or shopping advice, which, at their best, also served the consumer but were less dramatic and more “servicey.” A 1973 essay for Media and Consumer, a review that tracked the best in consumer writing, called how-to stories the “bush league of consumer journalism.”

Today consumer journalism has regressed from the big league to the bush league, in part because of the changing economics of the media business as well as the antiregulatory sentiment in Washington and in state capitals. Very often consumer reporting means coverage of personal finance, a safe topic that usually doesn’t pinch the holy trinity of media advertisers–car dealers, supermarkets, and real estate brokers. It appears to satisfy both the need of consumers to sort out the array of financial choices the deregulated marketplace has thrust upon them as well as newspapers’ bottom lines. How to choose a mortgage; how to choose a savings account; which mutual fund to invest in; tips for diversifying your portfolio–have become staples of the beat. The desire to make people smarter about their finances also spawned new financial magazines such as Sylvia Porter’s Personal Finance Magazine (now defunct) and Dow Jones’s SmartMoney. Women’s magazines began to consider money matters within their purview. Newsmagazines beefed up their coverage.

Much of what is called consumer reporting (reincarnated as personal finance coverage on newspapers) has found a home on the business pages, a place that almost guarantees that it will not be hardhitting and confrontational. “We do a lot of consumer-type stories,” says John Wilson, the business editor of the Rockford, Illinois, Register Star, by which he means “information people need.” As examples he offers “how single people can buy a home; how to read an annual report; how to select a financial adviser; more the tips type of thing.”

Tips mesh well with the “news you can use” school of consumer writing. “People want something they can take away,” says Deborah Fineblum Raub, the consumer columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Some examples: “Compare, compare, compare. Take a hard look at your current bank’s fees and charges. Ask how these stack up to others.” “Look at your credit card rate every year to eighteen months. Check around for lower rates and no annual fee, especially if you carry a balance.”

“News you can use” may be a clever slogan but in reality its usefulness is limited. Take, for example, the advice offered in a “Strategies” section of The Detroit News under the intriguing headline HOW TO MAKE YOUR PENSION SAFE. “Watch company stock. Make sure your defined-contribution plan isn’t overloaded with your company’s stock,” it advised, neglecting to tell people how to figure out if it was. The story also urged people to “monitor rate of return”–what the plan earns on its investments–and gave a brief explanation of the mathematics involved. The News noted that to do that, readers would have to obtain a report, which they said was available from the Department of Labor, without noting that the report is often out of date.

“News you can use” also embraces lists of all kinds. Some are useful. Many are not. A list of credit-card interest rates sounds like an ideal tool for comparative shopping, giving consumers a clue to the banks with the lowest rates. But in fact many banks reserve those rates for their most credit-worthy customers. Now if a paper sent a reporter around to lenders to see how easy it would be to get those low rates–that would make the information far more helpful.

The St. Petersburg Times, a paper that did outstanding consumer reporting in the old days and still does more than most today, recently ran lists featuring the cheapest hospitals to pick if you need treatment for stroke, heart attack, and Cesarean section. (The lists also gave some data on mortality and complication rates at the hospitals.) But what stroke or heart attack victim is in a position to consult the list when the need arises? Furthermore, the story implied that the cost listed for the procedure at each hospital was what patients actually paid. In reality, they, or more likely their insurance carrier or managed-care company, pay whatever the hospital “charges,” a number that may be quite different. (“Cost” is the hospital’s reported expenses for treating the patient; “charges” are the amounts actually billed to various payers. Hospitals are notorious for making up their costs among those payers.)

The Times also offered a genuinely useful list–comparative prices of seventeen commonly prescribed drugs sold by eight local pharmacies. Lists of this variety are more problematic, however. They can run into advertiser flak. Two days after the Times ran its drug chart, it published a “clarification” noting that a local independent pharmacist whose prices appeared higher on the chart offered discounts to older people, and it allowed other pharmacists to say price wasn’t everything. Last year the New York Post ran a similar drug comparison chart, reporting the results of a New York City Department of Consumer Affairs survey. A few days later it ran a second story allowing local pharmacists to challenge the department’s findings.

In the same way, personal finance coverage, as bland and nonconfrontational as most of it is, can get a reporter into trouble. Consider what happened to Mark Schwanhausser, a personal finance reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, the latest in a long line of reporters to collide with local car dealers.

Last May, Schwanhausser wrote a straightforward, consumer information story about buying a car. He didn’t name local dealers. He didn’t accuse them of fraud, misdeeds, or misrepresentation. He simply told his readers to arm themselves with information before negotiating to buy a new car, and he supplied a few weapons.

As a consumer information piece, Schwanausser’s was better than most. It explained how dealer incentives and money holdbacks work and how shoppers can use the invoice to help figure the actual cost of the car. The story pictured an actual invoice and decoded it for buyers. Schwanhausser also rated five services that sell factory invoice information and offered his judgments about their usefulness, an innovative twist that consumers could put to immediate practical use.

But telling consumers to “use your knowledge like an arsenal of nuclear missiles that you hope to never fire” was too much for local car dealers. Members of the Santa Clara County Motor Car Dealers’ Association yanked their ads. The paper itself recently reported that local auto dealers canceled at least $1 million worth of advertising.

Publisher Jay Harris tried to woo the car dealers back in a mea culpa letter, repudiating the article. “There were several ways in which it fell short,” Harris wrote. It should have allowed dealers to comment on the economics of auto retailing and tell what they were doing to improve relations with customers, he said. (As if consumers really care about dealers’ problems.) Harris also noted that “the article may have left readers with the impression that dealers stand to pocket thousands of dollars on the sale of each new car” and added, “clearly that is not the case.”

The Mercury News also published a “commentary” by a top official from a local dealership, which made the point that car dealers boost the local economy. It also ran a house ad listing ten reasons why readers should buy or lease their next new car from a factory-authorized dealer. At the bottom of the ad was this line: “The Mercury News is proud of its long-standing partnership with the Northern California new car dealers as we work together to meet the area’s unparalleled transportation needs.”

The newsroom went ballistic, and Harris was forced to hold a meeting with the staff, which resulted in a modification of the ad. Car advertising is drifting back, as it usually does, and Schwanhausser still writes personal finance stories. He says, however, “The chilling effect can be very subtle. When you start guessing what people will react to, you can find all kinds of reasons not to write a story.”

What “consumer beat”?

Not only has the content of consumer stories changed, but the nature of the beat is very different. In fact, it isn’t even a beat anymore at most papers. Increasingly consumer stories are given to general assignment reporters who cannot be expected to have the necessary expertise, contacts, authority, or perseverance to push for reform.

General-assignment reporters are also less knowledgeable about complicated consumer issues like utility and insurance regulation, bank finance, and pensions. Even to do good how-to reporting, reporters need much more than a passing knowledge of the subject. Without reporters looking under rocks and cultivating sources, potential stories are missed.

“Consumer reporting is becoming much more diffuse by design and practice,” says one former consumer writer for a large metropolitan daily who asked that his name not be used. Spreading consumer stories around has the effect of making them less visible and less likely to attract the attention and the wrath of advertisers and other powerful interests who pound on the publisher’s door.

Still, many editors maintain that by spreading them throughout the paper, they are able to publish more consumer stories than ever before. “We do consumer reporting without thinking about it as consumer reporting.” says Detroit News managing editor Christina Bradford. She points to the Strategies section with its personal finance orientation, safety-related auto reporting (based largely on government reports), and the S & L scandal as examples of consumer writing. What about supermarkets, a subject that the News covered with distinction in the 1970s? “I can’t recall any stories,” she said. “There don’t appear to be any current supermarket issues.” The News did run a story about the state attorney general’s survey of scanner accuracy in retail stores, but, Bradford admits, “We’ve never sent a reporter in to do our own survey.”

Lou Mleczko, a News reporter who covered the consumer beat there until the mid-seventies, sees other lapses. “There’s virtually no coverage of utilities. Neither paper”–the Free Press and the News publish under a joint operating agreement–“covers rate increases or consumer services. The same thing for the insurance industry.”

Occasionally good consumer reporting does surface in print. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel ran an excellent series pointing out serious deficiencies at HMOs in South Florida. The St. Petersburg Times investigated medical brokers who sent sick people to questionable treatment centers.

Two stories to tell

The weakness of the new consumer reporting is most evil in media treatment of two key consumer issues–item pricing in supermarkets and long-term auto leasing, a fast-growing way of getting middle Americans into new cars and one with few ground rules to protect them.

Item pricing first surfaced as a consumer issue some twenty years ago when bar codes that could be read by scanners appeared on products. Supermarkets were supposed to maintain shelf tags with prices for shoppers. From time to time studies appeared showing that shelf tags were poorly maintained and that scanners inaccurately rang up overcharges estimated to cost consumers more than $1 billion a year. And from time to time the press has covered item pricing, but most often as a legislative story, whenever state and local jurisdictions tried to pass laws requiring that prices be stamped on each product. In a sample of stories from eleven metropolitan dailies, CJR found no newspaper that conducted its own investigation to see if overcharges were honest mistakes or systematic attempts to deceive shoppers. We found no stories identifying which local supermarkets, if any, were overcharging or failing to maintain shelf tags–stories that would have been naturals in the old days.

Clearly, the story is still there. Money magazine, PrimeTime Live, Eye on America, and CBS This Morning (all of which are not dependent on supermarket advertising) have done more thorough recent investigations, sometimes going undercover and finding widespread overcharging.

“If supermarkets are allowed to withhold information, they can deceive the customer, and they will,” says Gerald Moore, a spokesman for the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. In late June, the department released a report showing widespread violations of the state’s law that requires the shelf tag to show both the price of the item and its unit price. To date, none of the New York media have carried the story beyond the press release.

Vehicle leasing is another topic ripe for journalistic exploration. Several newspapers tried to make leasing into a news-you-can-use piece, patterning their effort on a writing formula that seems to be the very model of a modern consumer story. The stories CJR examined from fifteen metropolitan dailies show the model hasn’t worked. A 1993 Chicago Tribune story told readers to “check the contract to make sure he or she understands everything that is defined as excessive wear”; it offered no definition of “excessive wear” and no advice about what consumers should do if they didn’t understand it. A 1990 Los Angeles Times story offered this advice: “Don’t sign a lease contract until you know a car’s set price,” without specifying what set price–the sticker price, the sales price? In any case, the price of the car is never part of the lease. Some leases, however, might include the capitalized cost, which is the value the leasing company has placed on the car. But capitalized costs, a sum analogous to the amount financed in a credit transaction, and an important piece of consumer information, were not mentioned in the article. A Los Angeles Times story published last March told people to “dicker on the lease rate,” an amount also not specified in the lease. How much better these stories would have been had reporters actually visited a few dealers and tried to negotiate a lease, pointing out traps in the process. But good leasing stories are hard to do. Reporters need time to digest all the nuances of a very complex topic. Expert sources are hard to find. And there is always fear that powerful car dealers and others who lease autos and who oppose constraints on their business will strike back.

The real story in leasing is that consumers have few legal protections against the pitfalls; no standardized definitions of key financial terms; few mandatory disclosures that would let them evaluate and compare their financial obligations. The situation is much like the confusion in credit practices that existed before Congress passed the Truth-in-Lending Act in 1968, an issue that was widely covered in the press at the time. Leasing stories CJR looked at ignored these larger issues, with the exception of The Buffalo News, which gave a fuller explanation of the lease process complete with a helpful diagram that showed how to calculate a lease, and a few other New York papers that finally discovered the topic toward the tail end of a five-year battle to enact comprehensive consumer protection legislation. New York is the only state to pass such a law. Reporters don’t seem to be asking why.

TV: Where the action is

While consistent, hardhitting consumer reporting is withering at most dailies, it is blooming in network television. The network morning shows have consumer segments. Newsmagazines have shown themselves willing to invest time and money in what can be an expensive form of investigative journalism. They have advanced consumer reporting from the basic explanatory stories Betty Furness pioneered at NBC in the 1970s to the hidden camera routines that expose wrongdoing and deception, in much the same way newspaper reporters used to investigate dubious practices in the marketplace. They give TV reporting an edge that is now lacking in print.

A CNBC piece, “A Fiery Finish,” used a hidden camera to test a manufacturer’s claims that retailers were giving adequate warning about the spontaneous combustibility of rags that had been used to apply a certain type of wood stain. Another, “Is Your Food Safe?,” produced by 48 Hours, fixed a hidden camera on a worker in a meat-packing plant to look for poor handling practices.

Good consumer reporting, however, is easier to do at the networks. Many wrongdoers are not network advertisers. They are more likely to be advertisers on local TV, where consumer reporting has leveled off. “It’s not dead, but it’s certainly not the glory days,” says Herb Weisbaum, a consumer specialist with KIRO in Seattle. “We are expected to do more with less,” Weisbaum says, as stations cut back money, personnel, and support. Occasionally an impressive local piece appears. WPXI in Pittsburgh aired twenty-nine segments on the sales deceptions perpetrated by Metropolitan Life. Overall, though, local stations have hardly touched the biggest consumer issue of the year–health-care reform. A news director from WFSB in Hartford told the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation that his station didn’t cover the subject because it was “like watching water drip from a faucet.”

An exception to this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t pattern of consumer reporting is Arnold Diaz at WCBS in New York City and his clone Al Sunshine at WCIX, the CBS affiliate in Miami. The Diaz “Shame on You” genre features businesses that have repeatedly flouted the law or have constantly ripped off consumers. Sinners land in the “Hall of Shame.” While many of the sinners are small-time operators, Diaz says he has gone after the big boys–Ford Motor Company, Nynex, Chemical Bank.

To the extent that enforcement of consumer laws is lax or nonexistent, as it is in many jurisdictions, the Diaz branch of the family serves an important watchdog function even if is gimmicky at times. “He’s an electronic cop without a badge,” observes Mark Green, former New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner and now the city’s Public Advocate. “In our society people with de-facto badges are on-air correspondents.” They are the real law-enforcers stepping in where government is reluctant to go.

Good consumer writing also requires an understanding of the sales process, marketing strategies, and the products and services themselves. The public would be better served if consumer reporting in all media returned to its watchdog role: naming those engaging in dubious practices, presenting a new or old problem in a way that enables people to understand what is happening, who is responsible for it, and what they can do about it. Such stories often need less “balance” and more guts.

THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN CONSUMER STORY

The decline of consumer reporting in newspapers parallels in many ways the decline of investigative reporting. Reporters under pressure to produce a lot of stories fast say they have no time these days to go out and dig the old-fashioned way. Instead many are bound to the telephone, hoping to get the gist and turn it into type as quickly as possible. In consumer writing at least, this approach has spawned a ubiquitous model that neither informs nor reforms. Here’s how it works:

Anecdote–several graphs and quotes about a victim or victims. If they express outrage so much the better.

Substitutes for–actually finding out about the issue directly by listening to sales pitches, going shopping, or otherwise witnessing the problem firsthand.

“He said, she said” quotes for balance and objectivity–competing parties or interests always have their say no matter how inane or unbelievable their position may be.

Substitutes for–expertise. Rarely are these quotes given context or meaning that allow readers to judge the validity of each side’s point. Reporters often don’t know enough about the subject to place “balance” quotes in perspective.

Tips–three or four quick, short hits that purport to tell readers all they need to know about dealing with some of life’s most complicated transactions. Distilling the essence of an issue and sending readers off to find more information on their own is not necessarily helpful or useful.

Substitutes for–analysis and explanation.

Trudy Lieberman is a contributing editor of CJR. She was a consumer writer at the Detroit Free Press from 1968-1976, and is now a senior editor at Consumer Reports. This article reflects her opinions, not those of Consumer Reports.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Sep 1994

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