Just two weeks after raising alarms about the safety of 12 popular infant car seat models, Consumer Reports retracted its report after government studies debunked the results. While ABC, NBC, and CBS all covered the retraction on their January 19 morning news programs, they downplayed or ignored the role they had played in hyping the story.
The Consumer Reports tests, meant to simulate side-impact collisions at 38 miles per hour, were actually conducted “in excess of 70 mph, twice as fast as the group claimed,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  (NHTSA) announced in a January 18 press release.
What’s more, “When NHTSA tested the same child seats in conditions representing the 38.5 mph conditions claimed by Consumer Reports, the seats stayed in their bases as they should, instead of failing dramatically,” the statement quoted NHTSA safety administrator Nicole Nason.
The following morning, all three network morning shows reported NHTSA’s findings, but only NBC’s Tom Costello reminded viewers he himself had hyped the findings two weeks earlier.
“It was a Consumer Reports alert that got a lot of attention, including on the ‘Today’ show,” Costello noted on the January 19 “Today” show before airing a clip of his January 5 report followed by a sound bite of Don Mays of Consumer Reports from the January 4 “Nightly News.”
On their January 5 programs, all three networks hyped the story, using phrases such as a report that “every parent should hear.”
CBS co-anchor Hannah Storm was the most melodramatic.
“Let’s bring in little baby John here,” Storm prompted Mays as he was handed a newborn baby sleeping in a car seat.
“This is all about real children that are getting killed in accidents,” Storm added.
But in fact, the decline in infant car seat deaths was one factor that led NHTSA to think something was amiss with the Consumer Reports findings.
“It didn’t make a lot of sense to us. Infant fatality rates have been dropping since the 1980s,” Nason told Smith in a January 19 “Early Show” interview.
“It was important, we felt, that we try to reconstruct the tests,” Nason added, “to be sure we weren’t missing something so important and so dramatic as car seats flying through the air at 35 and 38 miles per hour.”
Nason also told Smith that the media attention from the now-discredited study burned up the federal safety agency’s phone lines.
“We’re in at over 400 calls from parents who are confused, they’re panicked. They’re literally asking, should I still put my child in this car seat,” the NHTSA chief added.
Yet when it came to examining how their coverage contributed to creating a grade panic, network journalists failed to question their role in hyping a story that all along had cause to be questioned.
“The magazine now says the tests were outsourced to a company it won’t identify and it’s begun an internal investigation,” Costello reported, prompting host Lauer to muse “I’m curious as to why they won’t identify that company that did that testing.”
The media frequently turn to Consumer Reports as a respected, unassailable purveyor of sound science while neglecting to give consideration to the industries the magazine critiques. In the past six months, the three broadcast networks have consulted Consumer Reports experts about: how to change your name; the best supermarket; holiday dangers; the most effective anti-wrinkle cream; carcinogens in soft drinks; food safety and bacteria in chickens.
But Consumer Reports also failed to report the name of the testing firm two weeks ago and that the media failed to question the methodology of the study and the reputation of the testing firm that conducted it.
In fact, CNN’s “American Morning” on January 5 featured just such a skeptic of the Consumer Reports study, the CEO of a company whose products were impugned by the study.
Evenflo chief Robert Matteucci told CNN that morning that “despite our repeated requests” the consumer watchdog group “has not been willing to share the protocol or the results” of the study.
“Any single variable that is not managed properly to the requirements of the federal standards will lead to inaccurate results, and we strongly believe that’s what’s happened here,” Matteucci insisted.
Even though Matteucci’s suspicions were indeed correct, he was not featured in person nor in a sound bite in January 19 coverage on the broadcast networks. What’s more, Matteucci was all but ignored during January 5 coverage on the networks as “Good Morning America” gave him a 17-word sound bite and “Today” show aired a 14-word sound bite. Neither network fleshed out Matteucci’s concerns about the study’s methodology.