Journalist Spotlight: Paul Lienert on his scoop on accident fatalities in GM cars
On Monday, Reuters exclusively reported that at least 74 people have died in General Motors cars in accidents with some key similarities to those that GM has linked to 13 deaths involving defective ignition switches. The scoop was the result of a Reuters analysis of government fatal-crash data, which also showed that such accidents also occurred at a higher rate in the GM cars than in top competitors’ models. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Detroit Bureau Chief Paul Lienert offers an inside look at the reporting behind the exclusive, which was covered extensively by competitors and press.
Q. How did you score this exclusive?
A. Ryan McNeill and I, with the help of Washington Bureau Chief Marilyn Thompson, put the GM crash deaths story together the old-fashioned way: Lots of late nights and plenty of shoe leather. The Reuters team has been turning out a steady stream of exclusives and solid reporting on the GM story since it broke in February. I started putting together a private database of crash victims soon after that, but Ryan made the big breakthrough when he started digging deeply into a key government database, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is a state-by-state survey of crash deaths supplied by local law enforcement agencies.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. Much of our research involved poring through government databases — not just FARS, but the Early Warning Reporting database, which is a quarterly compendium of vehicle crash deaths and injuries provided by vehicle manufacturers. We looked through literally thousands of consumer complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was the core of our work. After we analyzed the data, we shared our findings and methodology with General Motors, NHTSA and several outside experts, including the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has years of expertise in analyzing vehicle crashes and safety.
Q. How long did the analysis take?
A. I started building an early version of the crash deaths spreadsheet in March. Ryan and I started sifting through the government databases in early May. We continually looked at different slices of data, testing different theories, for nearly a month before narrowing our focus and zeroing in on a very specific type of fatal crash that was similar to the ones that GM had acknowledged. It really was a process of both trial-and-error and discovery that led us eventually to FARS.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. I’ve been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years, focused almost exclusively on the auto industry since 1974. Two things keep me stoked: Writing stories that in some way help or touch real people. And working with younger journalists, which in my case usually means nearly everyone one else at Reuters.
Q. What do you find most fulfilling about covering your beat?
A. I’m the Detroit bureau chief – where we focus almost exclusively on covering the auto industry – and the global auto team leader. Almost anything that affects the auto industry in the Americas, Europe, Asia and elsewhere is fair game for the reporters on the auto team. I’m really lucky to have two great reporters in Detroit, Ben Klayman and Bernie Woodall, who are top-notch journalists who make my professional life a joy.
Q. How does this latest recall compare to others you’ve covered during your career?
A. If and when I ever hang up the saddle, I expect that I’ll look back on the GM crash deaths story as one of the most important of my career.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. After two years at Reuters, I can look around the organization on any given day and see enthusiastic, high-energy reporters in nearly every part of the world covering and breaking important news stories that often set the pace for our competitors. For a journalist, life doesn’t get much better than this.
To read the latest from Paul Lienert, click here.