Slack Chat: We Talk About Disclosure. This Is Where We Stand.

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.

However, during the last few days, it’s become incredibly clear that some automotive journalists don’t have a deep (or shallow) understanding of ethics and disclosure. Even TTAC, at times, has failed to disclose the extent of the consideration offered by manufacturers during press trips.

This is where we fix all of that.

Tonight, the majority of TTAC’s writers got together on Slack (it’s kind of like a big partyline for the digital age) to hash out how we can be as ethical and transparent as possible from now on. We all agreed to five main points.

TTAC writers:

  1. cannot work for an OEM,
  2. cannot take cash from an OEM,
  3. must disclose all consideration provided on a trip as clearly as possible,
  4. must disclose dollar amounts whenever possible,
  5. must disclose the entire nature of a vehicle loaned by an OEM.

This is a (slightly edited, for clarity) transcript of our chat.

@mark: Friday was an eye opener for a lot of people. Wayne Gerdes admitted to being paid by Volkswagen for his records, but that wasn’t the worst of it. There seems to be a collective ignorance of ethical boundaries in this industry. And since we called out Gerdes, people have been calling out TTAC. We need to draw a line in the sand and stand by it.

So, that’s why we’re all here, to democratically draw that line. To what ethical standard do we hold ourselves?

@bark: I think it’s simple. The mission of the site has always been directly in the name: The Truth.

The suggestion that was made by some fellow auto writers was that we have no business regulating the auto writing industry.

To which I say: who else is doing it?

As much as we’d like to think that this business is self-regulating, I think we can all agree that is absolutely not the case.

I think we expect that from the automakers themselves — to a certain extent.

What we DON’T expect is for it to come from the industry that is supposed to be the automakers’ watchdog.

@chris: Exactly. Who’s watching the watchers?

As journalists, we have a duty to report what we see, free of bias.

@vojta: Watchers should be watching each other. It’s not our problem that others are not doing it …

@mark: There is more backroom handshaking going on in this industry than there is in government. And I say that as I’m in the middle of watching the latest season of House of Cards.

But what constitutes bias? Perception is everything.

@steph: In the news media, where I’m originally from, there existed something of a “circle the wagons” mentality among journos, aimed at preventing embarrassment-by-association if someone was called out. Many needed to be called out, but the silence would be deafening. It’s culture, plain and simple.

@bark: Excellent point.

I think a lot of “wagen” circling is happening here, and amongst people from whom you’d completely expect it — but also some that you wouldn’t.

@mark: So, this isn’t necessarily about ethics. It’s about changing the culture of automotive “journalism.”

I was surprised there was someone from Automotive News defending someone who was taking money from an automaker.

@chris: I don’t know if we can change the culture of automotive “journalism” so much as we can expose it.

@mark: Isn’t that the same thing?

@chris: Exposing the culture may not change it — it likely won’t. But if we continue to open the curtain to readers, they may begin to demand that the writers disclose all of their relationships.

@bark: I know that there are murky, grey areas around press trips. Believe me, I’ve been on some trips that were far more luxurious than I could afford to take myself.

But straight up cash? How can that be anything other than black and white?

@bozi: There are some grey areas there but taking cash is a line that should not be crossed

@mark: Even cash is a grey area. @vojta does translations for manuals for an automaker. Does that mean he’s on the take?

@bark: No, I don’t think so. Not any more than my working in a non-sales role for an advertising company is.

As a journalist, I think you should recuse yourself from any possible instance where your honest opinion about a car could be affected.

It’s up to you to disclose that information in the most transparent way that you can.

@mark: I was just going to ask about that — where is the line?

So, is it up to @vojta to disclose that he does manual translations?

I think that’s a valid question.

@steph: Translating a manual is not the same thing as essentially being a public voice for the company. He could be manufacturing tiny screws for an automaker. Disclosing the fact, and being as transparent as possible would negate any perceived conflict in that case.

Then we’d know the real deal if he ever published a ‘the Tiny Screws on XXXX Car are Amazing’ article.

@bark: The definitive line is writing a review about a car when you are paid money to do so.

Simply saying “sponsored by” doesn’t cut it.

Sponsorship means a lot of things.

Gerdes listed about twelve different sponsors in his original post, and was very specific about their involvement — except the part where cash was involved.

@mark: 100000% agree.

I don’t think “sponsored by” cuts it for us. For others it might. For us it definitely doesn’t.

@vojta: For me, the line is where the automaker could exert any kind of influence on my opinions in a review. In my case, it’s pretty unlikely since a) people who I’m getting press cars from don’t know I do those translations b) I don’t even work for the automaker (Škoda, BTW) directly, but through third party, an agency. If I write that some Škoda is a piece of crap, it can’t possible have any kind of consequences on my translator income.

@chris: I’d believe that a disclaimer, like we already do for press trips and loaned cars, should be required for a certain period of time after any paid work for a related OEM. Six months, two years … I dunno.

@bark: How many current auto writers used to work for OEMs? And vice-versa? Bob Lutz has an opinion page at Road & Track. I think he’s pretty unbiased, but he took much, much larger checks from companies than probably the rest of us combined. However, he disclosed that at the bottom of every article.

@chris: Lutz was with EVERY OEM, though.

@mark: Opinion column writing is different, especially the type done by Lutz.

@bark: Agreed. Opinions aren’t reviews.

@vojta: Yeah, Lutz never done any reviewing, did he?

@bark: In a perfect world, we’d buy our own cars and refuse advertising. But that’s just not realistic for 99% of writers.

@vojta: Make that 100%. Even Consumer Report doesn’t buy everything they review.

@chris: Not everyone can be Consumer Reports. Or should be.

@mark: I think when you embark on an unbiased (or supposedly unbiased) endeavour, it definitely need to be disclosed whether an automaker has given us, as an editorial team, ANY kind of consideration — food, travel, lodging, etc. And, when it comes to us, you can’t work for TTAC and an OEM simultaneously. That should be an absolute no-no.

@bark: Without question. Flights, hotels, meals. It’s all necessary to review a car nowadays — especially these “first looks.” I’d be fine with a Hampton Inn and a ticket to the MCL Cafeteria — but also not realistic.

@steph: Columnists are required to mention if they ever worked for a political party/politician, regardless of the subject of their column. At least in Canada they are. That should be an easy thing – to make that admission standard on reviews that involved a press trip.

@mark: I think we could put that in someone’s bio at the end of an article when we mention someone’s history. “John Doe used to work for Audi before working for the EPA. Now he’s with TTAC.” Could you imagine?

@bark: So in order for us to provide news at the same time as our fellow reporters, we have to go on a trip or two.

So here’s what I’d suggest: If you’ve taken cash: first of all, DON’T. Secondly, disclose it, along with any other possible perceived compensation (flights, hotels).

@mark: Thirdly, if you know the value of the items received, we should disclose those too.

@bark: Yep — notebooks, hats, etc. All of it.

Lastly, if you are asked a direct question about your relationship with the automaker, just freaking answer it!

@chris: Shall we put a set value per shrimp?

@mark: $1/shrimp.

@steph: Shrimp values differ greatly!

@bark: Gerdes has caused himself a lot of pain here by not just answering the question: “We’re you paid, when, and how much?”

@bozi: I would suggest that it might be a good idea to give away any items like hats or such to readers or donate them.

@bark: I don’t mind that. The logistics of it suck.

@mark: That’s a tough call, because then we can give them away and it’s benefiting us as a contest. I’d rather just hand everything back to the PR people and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

@bark: Yeah, I agree with @mark.

@bozi: Good point, just don’t take it at all.

@bark: Maybe there’s a dollar limit over which we just don’t accept it. I’m probably going to write in the notebooks, and I need the USB press kit for after the event fact checking. But I don’t really need anything else.

@bozi: Good idea.

@vojta: Good idea. I know guys who do give these things away.

@mark: If there is something truly unique, and the automaker is willing to quote us a value amount for that piece of memorabilia, we should give it away to readers stating the amount it’s likely worth. But … hats, gloves, other small things … just leave it.

@vojta: I won’t partake in it, in TTAC’s case, for obvious logistic reasons. And also because if I were to give anything away, it would be to my Czech readers.

@bozi: Agreed.

@chris: Absolutely.

@steph: The non-essentials.

@jack: I think the days of the big giveaways are over. They ended when OEMs started doing multiple waves. I’ve never left an event with anything worth over a hundred bucks.

@bark: Yeah. I got a pair of rainbow sandals from Hyundai. That was the nicest thing I’ve ever gotten.

@mark: I got a sweater, hat, and gloves from Hyundai while doing a winter test in Quebec. I know they weren’t cheap. I didn’t disclose them at the time (with another outlet). But, I definitely would now.

@vojta: I got a few USB sticks I use to play music in cars. I need a lot of them, because I keep forgetting them in press cars. So, I’m in fact giving them back to automakers, though usually to a different one.

@mark: USB sticks are so cheap. Plus, they usually include materials we need for writing our stories later.

@bozi: Yes, I think USB sticks and informational materials used for fact checking are fair game

@bark: The only thing I’d add is that if you think there’s any possibility of a conflict, just give the assignment to somebody else.

@steph: “I got into this for the USB sticks, what can I say,” … said no one.

@mark: We have been talking about trips this whole time. What about actual reviews?

@bark: A trip without a review is a … well, it’s a social wave :)

@mark: I’m thinking a review without the trip ;)

@jack: Don’t take a check from the OEM when you review a car. This is called the Gerdes Rule, or the JF Musial rule.

@bark: Check the glovebox. If there’s cash, leave it.

@mark: But, to what extent do we disclose the variables of the test?

@chris: If there’s cash in the glovebox..photograph the bribe attempt and expose it.

@mark: For my press vehicles, a very nice man comes to my house to pick up my press car and gives me another one. I barely lift a finger.

@steph: Press cars are returned with a full gas tank, so nothing of monetary value changed hands.

@mark: In the United States, most journalists are “gifted” a tank of fuel for their test.

@steph: My God.

@tim: We don’t do that (in Canada). We return the vehicle as it arrived, not accepting a full tank of fuel. It’s common to see reviews, however, which say, “Vehicle and one full tank of gas provided by manufacturer.”

@mark: Should be go beyond that?

@jack: What’s beyond that? There is a reasonable expectation on the part of the reader that if we are reviewing a car and we don’t mention renting it, that we are getting the car from the manufacturer.

@bark: I’d say something like “Maibatsu delivered the 2016 Monstrosity to be driven for a week, along with a tank of gas.” I can’t think of anything beyond that.

@mark: I think that’s a solid way of going about it. If we can’t put a monetary value on it, we should be able to put an effort value on it.

@tim: My question would be, is their disclosure of the full tank enough, or should they not be accepting it?

@bark: I honestly think that gasoline is a fair expense for the OEM to absorb. I mean, we can’t drive the car without it. I don’t think anybody here depends upon press cars as their main source of transportation. So I don’t mind us using the gas, as long as it’s within reason. No trips to Orlando.

@steph: If you used/replaced less than the amount of gas the vehicle came with, disclose that? If we want to be Mr. Clean, I mean.

@vojta: I’m returning the press cars dry, or, to be exact, slightly above reserve. On the other hand, I have to go to Prague for each one, and return it (hour and half each way).

@mark: Reviews: Disclose as much as possible regarding the nature of the vehicle loan.

@tim: For the record: if, when fuel was at its peak here in Nova Scotia, I drove an F-150 and emptied the tank and returned it that way, that would have been a $188.50 gift.

@bark: I’d disclose that then.

@jack: As long as you just used the truck for what you’d have done anyway. If you drove it outside your routine to test it that’s different.

@bark: Seems fair, honestly.

@tim: We, not the OEMs, pay for the fuel here. So there are reasons we don’t empty an F-150’s tank.

@vojta: Once, I did the math. If I scheduled a press car for every week of the year (as I had it while working for TopGear), I could use them as primary transportation. On the other hand, just picking up/returning them would cost me approximately one whole working day in the week. If I spend that working, it would pay me a lease on, say, Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

@mark: So I think we have some rules:

1) Never take cash from an OEM (unless it’s through a third party to do some menial task like translation that has no bearing whatsoever on your view of an automaker).

2) Disclose all consideration provided on a trip and make that clear as day in your coverage.

3) Disclose dollar amounts whenever possible. This means asking PR people for the value of flights, lodging, etc., or at least coming up with your best estimate.

4) When it comes to reviews, disclose the nature of the vehicle loan.

@bark: I’m good with that.

@chris: That works for me.

@steph: Agreed.

@bozi: I agree

@vojta: Yeah, those points are fine with me.

@mark: Anyone want to add anything?

This meeting is adjourned.

Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson

More by Mark Stevenson

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3 of 103 comments
  • -Nate -Nate on Mar 10, 2016

    " WHY ARE YOU HERE ? " . Because : troll . -Nate

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Mar 18, 2016

    Ooh, a Declaration of Principles! Can I keep a copy and send it back to you when Jack posts a positive review of Vodka McBigbra's opera singing?

  • Daniel J I love my mazda 6. It's getting harder and harder to drive it around where I live as municipalities fail to repair roads. SUVs are just easier to drive with all of the potholes.
  • 1995 SC On the plus side, I found a sedan I want to buy
  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
  • Teddyc73 Since when did automakers or car companies become "OEM". Probably about the same time "segment" or "class" became "space". I wish there were more sedans. I would like an American sedan. However, as others have stated, if they don't sell in large enough quantities to be profitable the automakers...I mean, "OEMs" aren't going to build them. It's simple business.
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