Sunday, January 13, 2013

Auditing the Media: Was CNET's CES coverage complete?

As noted in the Tech News Today (TNT) report on Friday, CNET's parent CBS banned its staff from awarding Dish's "Hopper" an award as part of their reporting the Consumer Electronics Show that just wrapped up last week. As reported by CNN, the bottom of CNET's 'Best of 2013' page notes the following:

"The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such products."

Some may point to this as a legal risk management move: CBS had to stop CNET from awarding this to Dish to avoid it being used against them in court. However,  Ayaz Akhtar, a non-practicing lawyer and host of TNT, noted in his commentary on the issue that CNET awarding a prize would have little impact on the course of litigation  (but listen to the show for the proper context and for how he worded this. He's careful to avoid any misrepresentation and it's not an exact quote).

The real issue, in my humble opinion, is to looking at whether media be relied on to report on issues objectively. One could say that due to the lack of independence of CNET on the matter, makes their reporting of CES lack objectivity. This is the standard of care that a financial auditor is held to when auditing a company. For example, auditors are prevented from holding stock in companies that they audit. Should the media be held to the same standard?

For me this incident illustrates how the concepts of financial information integrity are portable to other arenas, such as understanding news coverage. Financial information produced by companies listed on stock exchanges is subjected intense scrutiny and regulation. Accountants/auditors were required to develop a framework to analyze how financial information can be provided to investors in a reliable that enables them to make effective investment allocation decisions. This financial “information production” process is essentially similar to the “information production” process produced by the media: data is gathered, summarized and presented to the user/reader to make a decision. The latter is the key difference. For example, if someone is going to rely on CNET's CES coverage to understand the best products out there, then they could make an erroneous decision because CNET did not cover dish's product.

The following is a list of audit objectives (i.e. completeness, accuracy, etc) that financial information must meet in order to reliable for decision making purposes.

  • Completeness – is the information presented completed, i.e. everything that is out there is included in the medium
  • Accuracy – is the information congruent with the original event
  • Timely – was the information reported in a timely manner, to be useful to the user
  • Validity – does the information faithfully represent the underlying reality that is presented
Another important concept, especially to media coverage, is the one  of "presentation & disclosure – is the presentation of the information impartial. In financial statements, companies may engage in transactions to alter the presentation of items, e.g. bury accounts payable into accounts receivable so the user won't be able to accurately assess the ratio of current assets to current liabilities. Media has a greater ability to do this. And I don't mean to pick on the CNET people because they at least tried to inform the reader about their bias, but the statement they mentioned is at the bottom and not at the top. That is, some readers may miss it.

Overall, it's hard to say whether that the coverage lacked integrity and more specifically was "incomplete". On the one hand, one could argue their analysis was in complete because they excluded Dish's product. However, they did provide full disclosure although it is buried at the bottom. But one can easily search for Dish's product on the Internet and see what other reviewers are saying (e.g. such as PCMag's review). But it does illustrate that media consumers need to be aware of such risks and do their best to understand where corporate conflicts exist and how such coverage can be biased.

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