The Media Is Missing the Most Important Part of the VW Scandal

Matthew Freeman

Oct. 9, 2015

Courtesy of the New York Times, here’s a bit of reporting that is emblematic of the way the press has covered the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal:

Volkswagen said on Tuesday that the scandal would cut deeply into this year’s profit. And the company’s shares plunged again, ending the day 35 percent below the closing price on Friday, before news of the diesel deception broke. As a result, the company’s stock market value has declined about €25 billion in two days of trading.

The media have covered the VW story with great vigor, to my ear, more even than the GM ignition scandal that claimed more than 120 lives — the number that GM so acknowledges. But most of the VW coverage is about money, not health and not the environment, even though both are clearly in play.

Another Times story focuses on the litigation that is certain to grow out of the company’s cheating. In it, we learn that a plaintiffs’ lawyer in Seattle is seeking clients via YouTube, and that he’s not the only legal eagle in the pursuit of class-action opportunities. The story includes this little gem:

Also, unlike many other automotive cases such as those recently involving General Motors and Toyota, the Volkswagen episode does not involve deaths, injuries or vehicle safety. Instead, the case’s issues — and the potential difficulties in resolving it — will involve assessing the type and amount of economic damages suffered by car owners.

I focus on The Times because it’s one of the few newspapers in the United States that has a reasonably fleshed out environmental reporting team. Many other papers have cut back the enviro beat, and now cover such stories on a catch-as-catch can basis, via wire services or by borrowing writers from another beat.

But for whatever reason, the VW story quickly became a business beat story, at least judging from the clips out there. If you google news stories on ”VW emissions scandal,” you’ll see a series of stories about money, corporate firings, and the company’s efforts to pin the blame on as few malefactors as possible (at least that’s what pulls up as I write this). Headlines include:

My local paper, The Washington Post, has covered the story extensively, without much focus on the environmental or health consequences. Here are their most recent headlines. None of them relay any information about health implications, and the one that promises some environmental coverage actually focuses on why, early in the Bush administration, EPA closed a testing lab that might have caught the cheating had it still been in operation. Here’s the list:

What’s missing from The Post’s coverage, and from most of the coverage out there, indeed, what The Times’ litigation story just gets altogether wrong, is that this isn’t just a tale about money and deceit. It’s also about public health. Those regulations that VW is violating so deliberately, deceitfully, brazenly, and cynically protect all people who breathe from pollutants that make them sick, and can even kill them.

To its great credit, The Guardian ran some numbers on that and got the ball rolling for other reporters interested in the human side of this scandal. Several days later, The Times finally tried to catch up with The Guardian, in a story headlined, How Many Deaths Did Volkswagen’s Deception Cause in the U.S.? Not surprisingly, Scientific American weighed in, too, with a story making the case that the damage is worse in Europe than in the United States. Finally, the intrepid Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press did some calculating in an October 5 story that ran in a number of papers. He worked with a sophisticated computer model to calculate that dozens of people likely died because of excess emissions from VW diesel cars.

Those are the exceptions, and I give reporters who examined the environmental and health implications credit for their work.

The problem is that those stories are being drowned by tales of the financial impact on poor, cheating VW. We’ve got plenty of evidence here that this is more than just a money scandal, more than a cheating scandal. It’s a public health and environmental scandal, too. Contemplate that the GM scandal revolves around an ignition switch problem that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. (At least that’s the number that GM has already copped to; many more cases are still out there, apparently, brought by victims or survivors who chose not to settle with GM at this stage.)

If the estimates are right, the VW scandal is in the same ballpark in terms of deaths here in the United States. And it’s probably way more deadly in Europe, land of the diesel car.

Perhaps most stories ignore that angle because the reporters don’t think of it. Maybe it’s because the calculations are too complicated or insufficiently fleshed out, or because the money story is so much easier to write, or perhaps because there are so many more business reporters than environment reporters. It’s hard to say. But those who’ve reported on that aspect of the scandal have figured out how to get a handle on it, and they’ve reported that hundreds of people have died as a result of VW’s willingness to pollute the air and then lie about it. And that’s not even accounting for the untold number of kids who suffered asthma attacks as a result of VW’s perfidy. Shouldn’t all that be part of the story — every single one of them, not just a handful of them?

The regulations that VW conspired to evade are in place for a very good reason. They save lives and spare children from needless asthma attacks. By failing to keep the health angle in focus, the media subtly buttresses the right wing’s anti-regulation agenda. We need strong regulation and vigorous enforcement to prevent just these kinds of scandals in the future, but the media is giving short shrift to the elements of this story that demonstrate it most clearly. 

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