None of this, however, means that professional reviewers are obsolete, Pogue cautioned. One of the advantages of full time critics is that consumers can get to “know his tastes,” he said, adding that he and his wife “steer their
ship” by a New York Times film critic whom they think is reliably wrong about children’s movies. When it comes to the relationship between professional and amateur consumer reporters, Pogue said, there has not been
as much displacement as most people think. Most user reviews are simply “add-on,” he said. Plus, he added, there are inherent problems with user reviews, which tend to be self-selecting for people who have had particularly bad experiences with a product or service. This is known as the “Squeaky Wheel Syndrome.” And no matter how hard we try, there will always be some gaming of the system, Pogue warned, citing Microsoft’s practice of sending laptops to reviewers and asking them to “dispose of them as they saw fit” when finished. Of course, most kept them, so the practice amounted to a form of payola. It is also easy to disseminate false, but incredibly damaging, rumors about products and services anonymously on the Web.

Pogue closed by calling for the development of a “Code of Ethics” among user review Web sites: take responsibility for words and comments you allow; when you believe that someone is unfairly attacking another, take action; and do not allow anonymous comments. Pogue noted that this has worked at many Web sites and that, employing another technological innovation, some sites now allow reviewers to review each other and the quality of comments, so that only the best rise to the top of the page.

Panel Discussion: Are Consumers the Right Watchdogs?

After Pogue finished, Kevin McKean, the vice president and editorial director of Consumer Reports, took the stage to moderate a five-person panel discussion on the question, “Are Consumers the Right Watchdogs?” McKean
started by noting that the “financial collapse” has made consumer reporting and protection issues “even more timely.” He then introduced Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of Columbia Journalism Review, who outlined a three-part package in the September/October 2008 issue of the magazine called “The Rise and Fall - and Rise - of Consumer Journalism.” The authors of the three articles - Evan Cornog, David Cay Johnston and Trudy Lieberman — all took part in the conference. (The articles can be found at )

Turning back to the panel, McKean posed a question to Trudy Lieberman, who is a consumer affairs and health reporter and author of the CJR article, “How the Press Fueled the Birth and the Decline of the Consumer Movement.”
McKean asked about the “heyday” of that movement forty years ago. Addressing the decline instead, Lieberman said that, “The business community killed the Consumer Movement.” She advised that as journalists think about the changes happening in consumer reporting, they think about “our economic system and what is allowed in it.” She said that the decline of the Consumer Movement was a “graphic” demonstration that with the business community, “you can only go so far in reporting on serious malfunctions in the system.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the business community “said ‘enough,’” and began to organize against groups like the Michigan Consumers’ Council. When those folded, consumers lost protections being enacted at the state level.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.