Meanwhile, the auto beat has never really been a hotbed of watchdog journalism. Newspaper auto sections are mostly cash cows, often slapped together by the ad-sales side, with a syndicated column thrown in for good measure. Top trade publications, such as Automotive News, arguably should have been on top of the safety story, but even the venerable Consumer Reports was late on it. The magazine’s January 2010 issue included an entire page praising the Toyota Avalon, with no mention of the acceleration problems. Even though Consumer Reports published a revealing online investigation on runaway Toyotas in December, it wasn’t until the April auto issue that it disavowed its Toyota recommendations in print. “We wanted to be very cautious not to incite panic,” says Jeff Bartlett, the magazine’s online deputy auto editor, citing the rare one-in-10,000 incident rate that influenced the decision not to sound the alarm sooner.

Fair enough, but there’s another lesson here, especially in this era of diminished newsroom resources: good journalism is often painstaking. Poring through years of safety complaints is tedious work. But look at the payoff. Thanks in part to two reporters’ persistence, Toyota has recalled 10 million cars, worldwide. In April the automaker was hit with a $16.4 million fine—the largest in NHTSA history.

Given the volume of coverage devoted to automobiles, it seems reasonable to expect more of a balance between exacting watchdog coverage and the kind of aspirational coverage that currently dominates. And so we award a dart to the automobile reporters—and their editors—on the frontlines of the Toyota story who had repeated opportunities to provide a real public service, but did not.

 

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.