We should be mining online data for useful information, and pointing out instances where flackery or momentary enthusiasms have overwhelmed judgment. The role of journalists as crusaders remains, and the profession can and should do much more to explore the systemic ills of our consumer economy. Enlisting the aid of readers, and listening to their voices, is far better than end-of-days handwringing. And it may be the best way to win the confidence of a public that is so often hostile to journalism.
Journalists should recognize that there is an opportunity in the fact that the information that people need most is often the information that requires the greatest effort to obtain. We have talked about cars and stereo equipment, but it is not going to make a huge difference to my well-being if I choose a Honda or a Toyota or a Chrysler minivan for my family. But understanding how different HMOs treat certain kinds of claims, or how different state laws can affect mortgage loans around the nation, or uncovering patterns of discrimination against the young, or the old, or the female, or the non-white, or the immigrant—all of these things still cry out for the energies of consumer reporters. Such reporting can be—and is already being—made stronger by the inclusion of voices that previously were hard to hear.
It makes our jobs as journalists harder—there is so much more to sift through—but the value we add is as great as ever, maybe even greater.
In the end, for all the usefulness of the web and the input of my fellow consumers, it was an article in the mainstream press that most impressed me in my search for a new car. In November 2006, the Pulitzer Prize-winning car columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Dan Neil, wrote a review of the new model of the Acura MDX. The premise of the review was that Britney Spears was kicking out her husband, Kevin Federline (she had already taken away his Ferrari), and that K-Fed would soon be living out of his car. Neil happily suggested that, in that case, the new mdx would be an excellent choice. He went on to discuss the comfort of the car, the excellence of its sound system (that got my attention), and the technological advances that made it a great-handling SUV. The review was a rave for the car, and also a delight to read. For all the crowd’s current power, experts, thankfully, still have their place.