ABC News and Stationary Acceleration

ABC News has come under fire for a two second video clip used in a story about unintended acceleration in a Toyota. While stories about problems mount, ABC News had what many would call an ethical lapse – first while shooting and then in the editing booth.

To demonstrate how the company’s cars could have acceleration problems, the news crew filmed a car that had been modified to simulate a short circuit. One of the shots they wanted was a bit of b-roll showing the tachometer (which measures engine speed) rising quickly. Because they couldn’t get a clean shot of that while the car was moving, they shot it while the car was stopped. With the emergency brake on. At zero miles per hour. And with no one wearing a seatbelt.

Here’s a little motor lesson – when an engine has no load on it, it will accelerate much faster. Sit in your own car, with it in park, and stand on the gas – the motor will rev like never before. So the clip they showed overdramatized the unintended acceleration by a huge factor.

So we can think of a couple reasons why this happened … they wanted more drama, similar to what NBC did in 1993 when they planted explosives on a pickup truck … they thought it was a similar level of acceleration … they thought no one would notice. Of course, there’s one more option – that they did not know the difference.

Deception is one thing and, to be honest, I can then lay the blame on an editor and/or producer who made the decision to make it look worse than it is. But ignorance … that may bother me even more because it goes to a core problem with journalism – sometimes, we know not of what we speak. It’s entirely possible that no one working on that story knew enough about the auto industry or how cars work to be able to ask legitimate questions – and be able to decide if the answers were credible.

How can the public trust us to get stories right if we don’t know anything about what we’re covering? The idea of fewer reporters that can cover more things makes great business sense, but it does not make journalistic sense. You have to know your subjects. Specialists are a necessary expense sometimes.

Mark E. Johnson

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