— story by Chris Woodyard, Bureau Chief, Los Angeles, USA Today
The Motor Press Guild provides us with tools we need to do our jobs, whether it’s opening doors to new vehicle models, providing access to top auto executives or recognizing the nation’s best automotive journalism through our MPG Awards.
Now the guild is taking another bold step, one aimed at moving us toward higher standards when it comes to image and credibility. We have adopted a Code of Ethics [click to view].
Passed by the board of directors, the code is a set of guidelines aimed at coaxing companies and journalists away from practices that run counter to basic honesty and fairness. We’re a club of professionals. We need professional standards.
The board didn’t get carried away. Conduct remains up to individual members. The guild doesn’t have the time or the resources to enforce any code. The goal of guidelines is to give members — especially those starting their careers — a point of reference.
We’re not talking about accepting free travel to assignments, which we recognize that many members, especially our freelancers, need to accept in order to do their jobs. Feel no guilt about your growing collection of branded ballcaps, pens, notebooks and tchotchkes that have come your way over the years. Not even routine gift bags merit our attention.
Parties or group dinners with automakers picking up the tab? You’ll find me there. That’s where we’re most likely to find out what’s really going on from well-lubricated executives.
Rather, for now, the code aims to quell the most outrageous conduct that clearly fall outside the boundaries: Free iPads handed out during reviews or big-screen TV giveaways. Outlandish excursions unrelated to vehicle reviews. Invites that include free travel for spouses.
The examples could go on and on, but the few make the point.
At a drive event last year, I chatted with a former big-city newspaper reporter who is now on the auto beat as a freelancer. He said he was thrilled to be free of the ethical shackles imposed by his former employer. He added that his journalistic goal was to collect as many pricey goodies from automakers as possible. He didn’t whisper it; he wanted to proclaim it — and the head of PR was seated beside him.
I was aghast at the journalist’s attitude. As a freelance auto reviewer, his job was to write a fair evaluation of what he thought of the vehicle – without being colored by what many would view as a payoff in the form of valuable free stuff.
It’s not hard to figure out how we’ve gotten to this point. Unlike companies on most other business beats — and I’ve been assigned in the past to several of them — automakers crave coverage. They cultivate chummy relations because they vie for positive product reviews, which still hold sway with car shoppers.
Those same shoppers would be enraged if they knew that the reviewer had received a free iPad as part of demo that led to the glowing review of a new vehicle that swayed them into buying the car. And it’s just about the matter of whether the reviewer was actually influenced by having received the free iPad. It’s also about the impression it creates.
Thus, I hope you like our new code. Raising our standards will raise our credibility, and we will become more trusted by readers and viewers as a result. Automakers should be thrilled as well. It may help them curb their fears of an arms race with rivals when it comes to journalistic bribery. They can better resist pressure from upper-level management eager to blame bad reviews on failure to amp up giveaways to the press.
Maybe our new code will lead, too, to a conversation among us that’s long overdue. Maybe it will inspire other auto journalist organizations around the country to follow suit.
In any case, our new Code of Ethics is a first step in the right direction.