The Porsche 997 Turbo and the Ethics of a Journalistic Car Wreck

The Globe and Mail auto writer whose teenage son crashed a $180,000 loaner Porsche 997 Turbo has now caught grief on Romenesko for allowing Porsche to pay the $10,000 deductible on the car’s insurance.

Now, that simply seems unacceptable to me as a technology reporter, but perhaps there are different ground rules. If I am loaned, say, a $5,000 computer, and my son, trying to draw a picture on it, accidentally pulls it off a desk, and it smashes into a state that can’t be repaired, there is no publication I’m aware for which I write which would allow me to accept that a company would eat that cost.

I am all for ethics . And it’s heartening these days to see a Romenesko reader making the effort to comment about a story, the way everybody used to, back before layoffs and publications’ death notices swamped the rest of the media news.

Still, this particular complaint seems screwy. The $10,000 deductible is Porsche’s deductible, on Porsche’s insurance policy, which covers a car Porsche lends out to automobile reviewers. The ethics horse left the barn (or crashed through the garage door) when the Globe and Mail accepted the use of the 997 Turbo in the first place—or when the ethics-policing tech writer accepted the hypothetical $5,000 computer.

The underlying arrangement is what matters, or what doesn’t matter. A wealthy corporation wants its product written about. A reviewer wants to write about the product. The cost of giving the reviewer access to the product is underwritten by the company that wants to sell the product.

Except for the odd holdout , most publications accept this setup, at least when it comes to the experience of using valuable consumer goods. Travel and lodging are murkier and more contentious .

Does this dependency distort the reviewing process? Naturally it does. Most people can’t afford to get anywhere near a Porsche 997 Turbo. If the Globe and Mail had to buy one to drive it, the editors would conclude that the 997 Turbo is irrelevant to the paper’s readers. The space would go to a Mazda3 or something.

Likewise, the experience of test-using a $5,000 computer is not the same thing as the experience of spending $5,000 of your own money on a computer. The computer reviewer can adopt new technology in his or her mind, then move on to the next computing experience. The average computer shopper is going to be stuck with one choice and also has to pay the grocery bills.

To be a reviewer is to live in the magical land of the eternally new. If someone wants to capture the real experience of being a technology customer, try this: Wait till Apple brings out its next-generation iPad. Go to the Apple Store and try out all the new and enhanced features. And then go home and write a review of the one you already have.