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Editor's Weekly: Rush to judgment on sudden acceleration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2010 - The latest news from the investigation of sudden acceleration crashes indicates that something is amiss -- but not necessarily with Toyotas.

While the federal safety investigation continues, it might be time to consider what the episode demonstrates about another important institution -- not the auto industry but the media. As the Beacon's editor and a longtime journalist, I find the matter perversely instructive.

Months ago, a media frenzy elevated the accidents to major news. Coverage raised the prospect that Toyota was hiding evidence of a design flaw and a rash of accidents. With the issue in the spotlight, reports of problems increased, raising fears among Toyota drivers and wreaking havoc on Toyota's reputation and bottom line. Toyota's claim that drivers were at fault was seen as evasive.

But the latest news indicates that a major factor may be driver error -- mistakenly stomping on the gas pedal instead of the brake. Federal safety investigators analyzed information from data recorders of 58 Toyotas and found no evidence of electronic malfunctions and only one case where an accelerator pedal got trapped under a floor mat, the New York Times reported today.

The findings are preliminary and based on only a few of more than 3,000 complaints made to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But even this tentative evidence should be enough to raise questions about the initial news coverage. Many news organizations hyped the accident accounts while giving little attention to important questions such as the potential hazards of standard pedal design.

With pressure on mainstream media organizations to increase traffic and cut staff, this pattern of sensationalism has become all too common. In the digital world, too, allegations often outrun facts.

To those of us at the Beacon, all this amounts to evidence that our focus on News That Matters matters. Our mission is serving St. Louisans, not amassing eyeballs. We provide quality reporting and thoughtful engagement around important issues. And we do this not just through the Beacon website, but also through events, social media and other means. Our goal is to connect with people in the ways that are most useful and convenient for them.

Flawed reporting on the sudden acceleration crashes made it hard for people to understand the problem and how to address it. Good reporting can help St. Louisans understand and come to grips with the many challenges we face together.