A Tesla Model S caught fire in California last month, and the Washington Post — yes, the Washington Post, one of the best journalistic outfits in the world and one I happily support as a paying subscriber — thought it was an important story to cover. #Facepalm
The reporter does rightfully note the following: “There were 189,500 highway vehicle fires in the United States in 2019, according to the National Fire Protection Association.” In contrast, there appear to have been 9 Tesla vehicle fires in 2019. What the reporter does not explain is why the Washington Post decided it was important to do a long article on Tesla vehicle fires when it did not publish 21,055 or 63,167 stories about gasoline vehicle fires in 2019.
As far I saw, the paper of Woodward and Bernstein wrote 3 stories related to Tesla fires in 2019, and at least one in 2020. Statistically, if the Washington Post was giving equal weight to highway vehicle fires concerning Teslas and non-Teslas, that means it should have written either 21,055 stories (based on 2020 Tesla coverage) or 63,167 stories (based on 2019 Tesla coverage) about non-Tesla vehicle fires.
I know — it’s absurd. Writing 21,055–63,167 stories about vehicle fires would be ridiculous. But so is dwelling on a fires occurring in a few cars of the more than 1 million Tesla has produced. Naturally, some of those fires were due to the drivers deciding to go far too fast and crashing as a result. Spoiler alert: that’s how many fires of non-Tesla vehicles get started too. One commenter under the Washington Post article, Matthew Kuzma, notes: “This article completely neglects to mention that in the Florida incident, the teenage driver was going 113 mph in a 30 when he lost control and crashed catastrophically. There are very few cars that would keep everyone safe in that scenario. Plenty of cars would catch fire in that scenario. In the case involving Mr Aswan, he was going up to 90mph at the time of losing control of the car and crashing it.” He rightfully adds:
“It’s fundamentally impossible to carry the amount of energy needed for high-speed transportation without having a risk of fire in the event of damage. So far, the vast majority of Tesla fires have been due to damage from a crash. And there are many many more stories from people driving Teslas who have walked away from a crash that would have otherwise been fatal.”
So, again, what is the point of a story like this? Why does the Washington Post think this is the thing that it’s important to write about as part of its measly, minuscule, anemic coverage of electric vehicles, or even cleantech more broadly?
I have a few theories, and they are all embarrassing for a paper of such quality and influence as the Washington Post. They may be fitting reasons for the National Inquirer to cover this. But the paper with the tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” should strive to produce much more useful content. Before diving into the potential reasons for such coverage, I’ll note a hypothesis that I definitely think is incorrect but which is most popular in the critical responses I saw of the article. Many people assume the Washington Post runs negative stories about Tesla because Tesla doesn’t advertise. I think that hypothesis doesn’t make sense because 1) the advertising arm of the paper and the journalistic arm are completely separate, 2) journalists do not go into the profession because they are money hungry (quite the opposite), and 3) seriously, let’s not turn into TSLAQ or Q-Anon conspiracy theorists.
But then why did the Washington Post decide this was a good topic for one of its super rare piece on electric vehicles?
1. New tech is scary.
Humans are creatures of habit — habit in action and habit in thought. What we are accustomed to is fine, meh, whatever. Even if that is pollution that causes millions of deaths a year, or, in decades past, cigarette smoke that does the same. Several decades ago, concern about cigarette smoke would be laughed out of the room or ignored. In this day and age, premature death from air pollution from gas cars is more or less ignored. But new tech — now that’s a different matter!
Because it’s new*, it shakes us out of our habits. That means it gets a lot more attention from our brains when we think about it. We don’t just filed it away into a dusty, cobweb-covered filing cabinet in our brain along with a million other memories. We focus on it, think about it from various angles, and try to understand it. Sometimes, this makes it exciting — we get super excited about new tech and then a few years later, when it’s common or even long out of date, we see it as totally meh. On the flip side, sometimes that makes the tech scary to us. For one reason or another, we are concerned about what new tech — or new things generally — may do to us. Hence the concerns about 5G, cell phones when they were new, and TV when it was new. To be fair, some concerns turn out to be valid. But the point is that we get much more concerned about new tech just because it’s new.
That unbalanced concern is most likely what led the reporter or his editor to decide this was an interesting story to explore. When presented with the ratio of Tesla fires versus gas car fires, it didn’t matter — there were still new factors to explore and new things to potentially be concerned about. Naturally, this unbalanced concern about new tech also relates to readers, and the writer and editor know this — subconsciously if not consciously. Playing on human fear of new tech is likely to attract eyeballs. And, again, less cynically, it just may have been something they were interested in exploring because of their own natural fear and curiosity about the new Tesla electric cars and the batteries that power them.
*Ignore the fact that electric vehicles are not actually new. The point is that they are new in this era.
2. Tesla is hot, but a burning Tesla is even hotter.
Tesla is one of the most popular brands in the world; one of the biggest business and stock stories of 2020, or of the entire past decade actually; and one of the most polarizing topics a tech reporter could write on. What’s even hotter than Tesla? A burning Tesla.
Yes, it’s clickbait, and the Washington Post shouldn’t do clickbait for clickbait’s sake. However, the paper is really known for its political reporting. The tech stuff is a tiny sideshow that I presume is either filler to bring in more readers or in place to convince people who want to think the Washington Post that it is even bigger than the honorable behemoth it is that can cover a broad array of topics well. (Don’t give up your day job, Post — your true value is in political reporting and opinion, not tech coverage and certainly not cleantech coverage. And this clickbait story idea proves it.)
3. Elon Musk has tweeted a lot of not nice things, and this is payback.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a tendency to curtly criticize things and people he sees flaws in. Sometimes, he even does so in a shockingly rude way — and part of the shock is that it doesn’t fit his overall core missions or often high-minded sense of humanity. The dichotomy attracts attention, and it also — to put it bluntly — pisses a lot of people off and makes them hate the man. Furthermore, Twitter is the arch enemy of nuance and that is where Elon does most of his public communications. The result is all sorts of misunderstandings, food fights, and hurt feelings (both ways). There’s no doubt about it — Elon’s companies wouldn’t be nearly as popular if he didn’t tweet so much, but tweeting from the hip more than 3,000 times in a year (I recently tallied up his tweets through mid-October) is bound to piss off a lot of people as well.
On a number of occasions, due to a variety of factors, Elon has been especially critical of journalists — in both broad-brushed ways that are truly unfair to imperfect humans doing tough jobs and in very personal ways (for example, with obsessively critical and misguided “haters”). Naturally, the highly critical and sometimes downright rude tweets have led to a lot of journalists not liking him. I presume that has led to some writers looking for negative Tesla stories to cover or simply jumping on negative stories when they appear.
I don’t actually think this is the case in this story, but not knowing the editor, the writer, or how the story originated, I’ll leave it open as a genuine possibility.
4. Tear down, tear down, tear down.
Perhaps most likely of all, or at least a portion of the impetus for the article along with one or more of the items above, news outlets have a tendency to focus on negative matters. Cynically, the argument is that negative stories attract more attention and everyone in the business is just an attention whore. I don’t subscribe to that ideology, just like I feel certain that it’s incorrect to think that many news outlets bash Tesla because Tesla doesn’t advertise. (I cannot tell you enough how wrong I think that hypothesis is.) However, I think the fundamentals behind “negative stories attract more attention” often come into play.
What do I mean? Well, someone who spends their workdays writing about the news gets a huge diet of news. We in the business read an absurd amount and have heads overflowing with all kinds of interesting stuff as well as all kinds of garbage. We spend a lot of our time consuming news. That also makes us numb to various stories. And we also have to feel pulled to a topic to decide, “hey, I think this would be an interesting topic to explore.” Because negative, concerning topics play on that age-old fear gene and get our attention more, we are then inclined to think they are more worthwhile to explore and write about. Naturally, that’s not always the case — CleanTechnica is especially focused on good news because, well, that’s our thing and we find it fun and exciting. However, there’s no doubt that even for us, a Tesla fire has a special kind of pull that makes us want to look closer and learn more. And, indeed, part of the reason for that is it’s rare. Rare stuff is more interesting.
So, ironically, it’s the rare nature of Tesla vehicle fires, combined with the novelty of the new tech in general and the hot Tesla brand, that leads to totally unbalanced coverage of Tesla fires compared to non-Tesla vehicle fires. Finally getting around to the headline, if a dwarf scored a buzzer beater in an NBA game, it would be all over the headlines, even in papers like the Washington Post that are not known for their sports coverage. The rarity of it would lead to wide coverage. Of course, if every news outlet in the world covered a dwarf scoring a buzzer beater 1–5 times a year for several years, people may come to think it is just some special skill dwarfs have — that they somehow happen to be really good at buzzer beaters. Unfortunately, that’s what has happened with public perception of Tesla. One of the most common things I’ve heard from people who only know a little bit about Tesla is the claim that Teslas are dangerous because they catch fire easily. This is a completely incorrect perception, but it is widespread. And the Washington Post just fed into it.
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