Advice from Auto Beat Experts

Covering Autos, Climate, and Energy: Overcoming Challenges Facing the Media

Covering the auto industry has gotten a lot more interesting … and a whole lot more challenging too.

Reporting on climate change, energy, and auto issues continues to pose daunting challenges to popular media reporters, especially as their own institutions undergo unprecedented economic challenges and restructuring.

Challenges and hurdles aside, this is an exciting time to cover the industry, as domestic automakers struggle to stay afloat while responding to government pressures to reduce their emissions and at the same time develop a viable business model.

So what’s a general assignment reporter – or even a non-auto beat specialist – to do?

Following are tips from some of the most well-respected and experienced automotive journalists. They weigh-in on how to penetrate the industry and suggest pitfalls to avoid. Dissecting and accurately reporting the auto industry’s environmental impact requires an extra level of skill and finesse, as the experts explain.

Some Reporting Rules of the Road

Standard Rule #1: Do your homework. As with any beat, advance preparation for an interview is essential. And the internet can make researching easier.

Harry Stoffer, Washington, D.C., reporter for Automotive News, says it’s essential to get up to speed on the particular position of your sources before you contact them.

Joe White, senior editor at The Wall Street Journal‘s Washington, D.C., bureau, says it helps also to surf the Web for some of the many blogs that publish information on green vehicle technology. He also suggests reading books about the car business and its history, along with some auto enthusiast magazines.

Build Trusted Relationships. The auto industry is very compartmentalized. Each auto company has an extensive corporate communications division, with different staff responsible for a specific set of issues.

“Your job is to find the right person handling whatever issue you’re writing about that day. It takes patience and persistence,” says Tim Higgens, an automotive reporter for The Detroit Free Press.

Public relations officials handling environmental issues don’t receive as many inquiries as some other industry PR staff, so they’re quite receptive, even in dealing with publications they may not be familiar with, says Jim Motavalli, senior writer of E Magazine and a blogger for The New York Times.

Like federal agencies and many other industry interests, auto companies usually have firm policies for reporters to contact public relations staff to get to executives. But Motavalli also suggests meeting executives in person at auto shows and other events, getting their business cards for future follow-ups.

Higgins says it’s also important to stay in touch with news sources. If companies realize you’re not going away after one quick-hit story, they’ll be more inclined to work with you on your article, he says.

Drew Winter, editor-in-chief of Ward’s AutoWorld magazine, suggests that reporters send copies of their finished article to the public relations staff who assisted, thanking them for their help with the story. Even if the article is unflattering, it will show the reporter to be a responsible working journalist who used their quotes accurately, and it can lead to easier access in the future.

Seek out the best experts beyond the industry. Reporters need to tap a wide range of the most knowledgeable sources in the field. Writing about electric cars? Find an expert in battery technology.

David Welch, Detroit Bureau Chief for Business Week, says national labs such as the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are an invaluable resource on technology issues. He also suggests The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose staff are usually easy to reach.

Joe White says academics are often great sources on vehicle technology and he points also to trend analysts at some large shopping websites like Edmunds.com. They can provide perspective on “what sells and why and what technologies are cost-effective or ready for the real world,” he says. Automotive technology suppliers, like Johnson Controls, Bosch, Denso Corporation, and Delphi Corporation, can be great contacts, White says. Since they’ve secured contracts from auto companies, they often can provide a glimpse of what will be offered on cars in the near future.

Tim Higgins adds organized labor, car dealers, regulators, and industry analysts at Wall Street firms to the list of valuable auto industry sources. All have important insights into the business of Detroit and are able to translate goings-on.

Join a journalism association, specifically an automotive group for media. Groups like Motor Press Guild or The Automotive Press Association, with branches in many states, or state writers associations like the Texas Auto Writers Association, can give a leg up by providing access to key automotive sources, including contact information for each automaker, says Ron Cogan, editor of The Green Car Journal and greencar.com. Groups like those offer practical ways to network and stay atop of rapidly changing information.

Head to an auto show. “It’s a one-stop immersion in the competitive postures of different companies, technology and the Hollywood side of the business,” says White.

Reporting Pitfalls to avoid.

Don’t expect busy executives to give tutorials. Be prepared with specific questions. “Don’t try to reach the CEO of GM and say you want to talk about climate change,” Stoffer says. Be ready with a few specific questions and have an idea of your angle for the story.

Be prepared with tough, pointed inquiries. “These car executives are programmed with talking points. The only chance you have to get beyond the canned, non-news answers is to ask good questions,” Tim Higgins adds.

Don’t go into the story with “an agenda.” Auto industry executives are uncomfortable with journalists who they see starting an interview with a pre-conceived notion of what their story will be about, and then pursue that agenda without listening to alternative views. That’s especially true if the reporter hasn’t taken the time to research the pros and cons of a given technology, like electric cars, says Joe White.

Harry Stoffer agrees, and says too many journalists presume that car companies “have been absolute Neanderthals in terms of trying to develop advanced environmentally friendly technologies.” He acknowledges that automakers over the years may have been lax in this area, but cautions that “going into the interview with the assumption that they’ve been completely resistant for decades is not a good way to start.”

Stoffer urges journalists to avoid the broad brush assumptions about the auto industry. “Keep an open mind and be fair.”

Be wary of “breakthroughs.” Realize that companies are promoting what they have to sell. “There is no free lunch, and few magic bullets,” says White. He suggests reporters ask about costs and potential obstacles to mass production, and also about how the technology development actually may work beyond the laboratory and in the marketplace.

Far too often reporters see claims of auto companies about breakthroughs in future technologies and presume them to be true, says Ron Cogan. He sees this more in the environmental realm than anywhere else. Reporters need to understand that the goal of the company is to portray itself as an environmental leader, and that the media’s job is to get past the hype.

Jim Motavalli says he wishes he had been more skeptical of hydrogen car advocates’ claims that he outlined in his book, “Forward Drive.” He acknowledges that he took at face value projections made in 1999 that hydrogen powered cars would be on the road by 2004.

Motavalli encourages the media to be skeptical of optimistic delivery dates when big technological hurdles remain, and to be leery of claims by start-ups, like green vehicle and battery companies, about when they will be in full-scale production, especially in cases lacking substantial funding.

He also encourages a healthy skepticism of those unjustifiably touting green benefits they may not actually deliver. For example, he said that General Motors Corporation advertisements claim the company has 19 cars on the road that get mileage of more than 30 miles per gallon. Motavalli says that claim is based on highway mileage, not average mileage. Check out all such claims, Motavalli says.

Despite challenges in covering the industry, automotive journalists say their beat is more interesting than ever, given the many fundamental changes in the environmental arena.

“What happens in the next couple of years will determine a completely new path for industry. It’s an exciting time to be writing about it,” says Motavalli.

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi.
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