Can you guess what the swine flu, the Horizon gulf oil spill and the Toyota recall crisis all had in common?
They are all examples of what I am calling media feeding frenzies. What do I mean by media feeding frenzy? (MFF) They are events that typically exhibit the following characteristics:
1/ They burst into public’s awareness
2/ They tend to have an emotional component
3/ The “noise” escalates quickly
4/ Reports of the damage/risks escalate
5/ Often Congress will jump in and hold hearings
6/ Coverage dies suddenly
Let’s look at swine flu as an example. We first started hearing about this risk in 2009. It was emotional because it involved death. News mentions skyrocketed. We were told that as many as 200,000 people could die. (Just in the USA.) No hearings in this case, as many of the reports were coming from the government. Then suddenly, it falls from our radar screens.
Or how about the gulf oil spill? It shot into the news. It was emotional because it involved livelihoods. We saw pictures of oil-covered animals. Estimates of the damage stretched to the hundreds of billions of dollars. We heard that tar balls would be found up and down the Eastern seaboard. (Carried in the Gulf Stream.)
And the example we are asked about regularly is Toyota.
This is a case where I can give you some back-story. Toyota is a company that for years was lauded for its manufacturing prowess. They are a company that takes its time to study an issue. Once it has determined a solution, it implements decisively. These movements usually occurred in precise increments that added up over time.
Over the decades this worked very well for Toyota. But one requirement is that the facts are known. In the absence of facts, Toyota would get stuck in the “study phase.”
Now extend this to the issue of unintended acceleration—the issue at the heart of Toyota’s troubles earlier this year. Unintended acceleration (UA) is a catch all for an occurrence when a vehicle accelerates unexpectedly and in a manner the driver can’t control. Characteristic of UA is that it can’t be replicated. The driver reports a problem that does not reoccur.
This means that root causes are impossible to determine. And because the problem can’t be determined, no solution can be developed.
In such a situation, Toyota’s culture offered no guidance, other than to keep studying.
In other words, a complex, hard to replicate problem like unintended acceleration was tailor-made to trip up a previously sure-footed company like Toyota.
What was really happening?
First, UA is a problem that is felt across the industry. Every car company gets complaints about UA. Earlier this year we learned that some Toyotas—and other manufacturer’s vehicles, frankly—have a gas pedal design that allows stacked floor mats to slide up and jam the pedal. This might explain why over the past few years why complaints for UA with Toyotas have climbed above the industry average.
We also had not one, not two, but four separate congressional hearings to look into this issue. Toyota and NHSTA, the government agency responsible for safety both took heat for dithering in the face of complaints.
But did we learn what was actually behind this industry wide problem? No. Toyota was fined, but not for building defective vehicles. The fines were for delays in notification. (This is why we launched a $1M prize earlier this year. The prize will be awarded to submitters that can identify a repeatable cause of UA.)
I have listed three examples of media feeding frenzies. I am sure you can think of many more. They are not a new occurrence. They have been occurring for years. But the pace of occurrences has been accelerating.
As with many things, we can blame the Internet. On the Internet, the rewards are great for being first. (Rewards being traffic, and more pointedly, money.) Ad networks mean anyone can start a blog, and easily monetize their traffic.
Moreover, traffic flows to the pieces that are the most extreme; the headlines that are the most alarmist. Extreme is a relative measure. What was once extreme becomes the new norm. So the race to be first and the most extreme means creating a spiral that exaggerates and pushes the boundaries of the truth.
And here is my real point:
Undoubtedly swine flu, the gulf spill and UA are all bad things. But when the truth is obscured, bad policy can result. With swine flu, we had 71M doses of vaccine that went to the landfill. (Even after contributing over 60M doses to poorer countries.) With the gulf oil spill, we had the government—by their own reports—buying skimmers that were not needed so as to be able to be shown to be acting. And with Toyota we have been spinning once again around an issue we are no closer to solving.
I can see the risks, but I don’t have a solution. Are we all to develop a cynical shield? To stop being unduly influenced by news reports, will we just become desensitized?
What is your take?