Trusted resource faces retraction fallout

Flawed report forces quick reaction from Consumer Reports to ease the blow on the magazine's reputation

Flawed report forces quick reaction from Consumer Reports to ease the blow on the magazine's reputation

When the February 2007 issue of Consumer Reports hit newsstands January 4, it came with a lot of media attention.

The issue contained a report on car seats that came built in with media hype: 10 seats had failed tests, and the story's headline, "Most infant car seats fail our new front and side Consumer Reports crash tests," pulled no punches.

The magazine pitched outlets from NPR to The New York Times, which covered the report's findings in depth. Consumer Reports, for its part, urged recalls. What it didn't expect was a recall of its own: a retraction because of flawed research.

This isn't the first time in the magazine's 71-year history it has had to retract a story. But when the magazine, which accepts no advertising and counts on an impeachable record of accuracy, errs, it's monumental.

"Consumer Reports has one constituency; that is consumers," says Ken Weine, senior director of communications. "Safety is its most important work. This is right at the DNA of Consumer Reports' mission. We take this tremendously seriously."

Consumer Reports was fortunate that its error did not remain undiscovered long.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and infant car-seat manufacturer Evenflo, whose Discovery car seats were mentioned poorly in the report, immediately reviewed their own data following the report's release.

"Our initial review of the Consumer Reports testing procedures showed a significant error in the manner in which it conducted and reported on its side-impact tests," says NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason, in a statement. "The organization's data show its side-impact tests were actually conducted under conditions that would represent being struck in excess of 70 mph, twice as fast as the group claimed."

Nason says she was "troubled" by Consumer Reports' findings, as they "frightened parents" and could have "discouraged them from using car seats."

That was a concern shared by Evenflo, whose Discovery seat was one of two pushed for recall in the Consumer Reports article. Though the company would not comment, in a statement issued by Chicago-based AOR Zeno Group, it says it had immediately retested its seats following the report and was "absolutely confident in the safety of the Evenflo Discovery infant seat."

While everyone touched by the report has outreach to do to educate consumers, Consumer Reports has both readers to calm and a reputation to protect.

Within 36 hours of being approached by the NHTSA, Weine says Consumer Reports "began an internal review of all aspects of the story," found it could not stand by the report's accuracy, and immediately took action on its Web site and Consumer Reports on Safety blog, by withdrawing the report and posting retraction messages.

The publication reached out to the same media organizations it did originally, from morning shows to the evening news and the wires - all while repeating the message that "any car seat is better than no car seat at all."

Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, the magazine took the "unprecedented step" of contacting its 7 million subscribers with a personalized e-mail or letter from Jim Guest, president of parent company Consumers Union, Weine says. The letter carefully explains the mistake, addresses Consumer Reports' use of an outside testing lab, and assures that, in addition to immediate, accurate retesting, "a panel of experts" would be appointed "to review this incident and determine what went wrong."

The pressing question is how the retraction will impact the title's credibility. NPR's Morning Edition, for one, called the retraction "a major embarrassment" and "a big loss of face."

Currently, Consumer Reports knows it must face up to the ugly truth before it can regain any of the trust it lost.

"What we are most focused on right now is communicating directly with our subscribers, parents, and other caregivers who rely on car-seat information," Weine says.

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