What we can all learn from the Tesla data-journalism drama


An excellent piece by Taylor Owen, for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia: "The principle lesson from the whole Tesla affair: Data is laden with intentionality, and cannot be removed from the context in which it was derived. We do not know, from these data alone, what happened in that parking lot."

As Glenn Fleishman noted on Twitter, "First thing I’ve seen to complain about lack of *raw* data. Too many people took poor charts as data. Logs ≠ data. Tesla presented its logs as accurate without disclosing initially no GPS data was used, for instance."


  1. Here’s what we learned from this media debacle. Irregardless of what the grey lady thought or did, electric cars are not ready for real world driving needs. We also learned that on the right coast, 200 miles is considered a journey of some substance. 

    Had Tesla let this drop it would have disappeared in a day, but by whipping up the storm now everyone knows you shouldn’t drive one of their cars any distance or in the cold or with the heater on or if you care to make a detour.

    1. First, irregardless just means regardless. Second, your analysis is completely contrafactual. Reporters from CNN and a group of Tesla owners ran the same trip with zero problems. 

      1. First!  But facts!  The reporters didn’t run it under the same conditions (it wasn’t as cold).  

        Second, no one appreciates a grammar NAZI.  (Today you learned something useful from the internet.  Turn off your computer and think on this.)

        Third, let’s see how this works, in say, Afghanistan.  Hot, cold, rugged, gunfire, poverty, you name it.  Then get back to me.

        1. I’ll have you know that hyperbole is considered a logical fallacy. The Tesla is not made to run in Afghanistan, and neither is it marketed as such. It’s essentially the cutting edge of technology, and any new technology has its limitations until large scale adoption.

          The Tesla Model S costs anywhere from $50,000 – $90,000. That targets a certain socio-economic demographic and a certain type of driver, one who is unlikely to drive across Afghanistan.

          It is one thing to talk about genuine problems, such as the battery dying down at night in the cold; it is entirely another to make things up and sensationalize when there isn’t need. Compared to other reviews, Broder was clearly biased (given his history) and it only ended up showing him and NYT in bad light. While Musk isn’t an angel in all this, the fact that he was at least willing to corroborate with data and provide analysis (especially when contrasted against Broder’s hollow post-hoc excuses) makes me wonder about Broder’s journalistic integrity.

          I mean, Elon Musk is the CEO of a company and has an excuse to be biased. I expected more from the NYT.

          1. I’ll have you know that hyperbole is considered a logical fallacy……….. I mean, Elon Musk is the CEO of a company and has an excuse to be biased. I expected more from the NYT.

            I see irony here.

          2. It’s hard to get away with an accusation of a logical fallacy and then turn around and say that you have different standards of truth for different people.

          3. I’ll have you know that I enjoy hyperbole.  It spices up otherwise boring discussions, especially when I’m talking with mildly to moderately crazy people–they just can’t be reasoned with, so why bother trying?  May as well be silly, because the subject matter is a bit ridiculous.  

            Everyone is biased.  Everyone has been biased a long time.  This is not something new in the annals of history.  

            The Tesla doesn’t work, and isn’t affordable.  Cut the price in half, the charge time to five minutes, double the range, and make it so you don’t have to light a fire under it to get it to run, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it took off.  Otherwise it’s just a toy for all 2400 Tesla hobbyists.  

            Personally, I’m none too thrilled to be reminded about the log in your eye, and the sliver in my own, but there you go.  Life is nothing if not repeating the same thing, endlessly.  So you go on rolling that rock up that hill, I’ll be on the bottom waiting with my sledgehammer to bust it up!  

      2. What a lovely language English is, so many ways to express yourself regardless of the opinions of others.

        To your point; CNN and the Tesla owners only proved that with enough advance planning, a warm coat and plenty of spare time for charging and a direct route you could navigate between 2 East Coast cities in close proximity.

    2.  200 miles can be half a tank of gas on a lot of common cars.  For an electric car, it’s definitely enough range to be useful for someone who doesn’t frequently spend more than a couple of hours per day behind the wheel.

    3. Yes, if ‘ordinary’ people can’t figure out (like Broder) that when your indicator says 32 miles you can’t go 61 miles, then electrics are not ready for ordinary people.  Of course, neither are gas cars.

      Broder said Tesla told him to charge for an hour and leave, so he did, even though the charge meter said he had half the range he wanted.

      LIE and FAIL.

      broder: v. To try to drive twice the range your energy tank gauge says you have and expect to make it that far without running out of gas (or expect to run out of gas and blame the car for your own idiocy).

  2. The reviewer is too stupid to own a Tesla Model S, his time will come when it becomes the norm. Meanwhile those of us with half a brain are lucky enough to enjoy the EV experience. I’ve just bought a LEAF, maybe one day I will get to enjoy a Tesla.

    1. I didn’t know that merely touching an electric car makes you smarter.  It’s almost like it’s a sliver from the true cross, or holy water served in a mass-produced holy grail.  

          1. YES! I weep every day when I think of the long tail pipe. Thank the maker there’s no problem with oil.

  3. I think Mr. Owen means the “principal” lesson, as in “most important, consequential or influential,” rather than “principle” lesson.  Columbia School of Journalism, really?

  4. I thought the less was “Everyone telling you something has an agenda.  try to find out what that is beforehand and you’ll be happier with their information.”

  5. Yes Tow Center, yes smug, that’s right. No possibility that transport must move away from oil. There is no problem with oil, I repeat, there is no problem with oil. Move long, everything is fine.

    1. Much of the electricity on the east coast comes from coal-fired plants:  http://www.sierraclub.org/coal/map/  That’s like oil in rock form, in case you’re wondering.  So moving away from oil still entails a very long extension cord.  

      1. You’re preaching to the converted, there is nothing wrong with oil, I repeat, nothing, any numbers that indicate otherwise are false. Move along, everything is fine.

        1. 83% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels.  
          2400 Tesla Roadsters have been sold since 2008.  
          Kool-aid comes in 91 different flavors.  

          1. Why is it that the guys who ignore sound arguments and repeat bumper sticker slogans instead are always the first to start talking about “Kool-aid”? Large coal-fired plants are still more efficient than small internal combustion engines. Also, EVs are agnostic as to how the electricity is produced whereas ICs obviously aren’t. But neither of these points are the least bit salient?

            Kool-aid indeed.

          2. I’m not sure which guy you remind me of, the one on the left, or the one on the right of Not Sure:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJIjoE27F-Q

  6. This again? I hope the media saves an angle or two for the “One year later, what did we learn about the Tesla debate” story.
    I need fresh content.. like every ten minutes. Feed me!

  7. What I learned (or got reminded of):
    – Some human brains can go out of their way to force their confirmation bias onto their host’s journalistic careers
    – Lots of journalists live in a sick fantasy where they and their peers are infallible.

  8. “Logs ≠ data.”

    I’d say logs = data. That’s what they are, data. Whether they are representative or complete data is a different question, likewise with **charts** created from log data.

  9. Anyone who disagrees with you is a drug addict. Got it. I’m glad you clarified your position on that.

  10. What I know is that when the article first broke, there were an awful lot of people who were willing to paint a broad stroke and said, “See, electric cars suck” and another seemingly equally large group that thought the journalist made up the whole thing up.

    I don’t know if these loud groups are made up of oil company sock puppets and Tesla fanboys, but it is pretty clear that the two sides are too emotionally invested.

    Personally, I think that it was a combination of poor customer support instructions given to the journalist, a journalist who didn’t read the car manual first and was unfamiliar with electric cars in general and maybe a small amount of weather related battery drain.

    Maybe the journalist wanted to push the car to the breaking point so he could write a nasty story, but from his descriptions about why he did certain things (pulling off the highway to save power?!), he frankly sounds like he just didn’t understand how cars work.

    I expect new owners of electric cars to read the manual first and charge their cars at night.

    1. Let’s be clear – Broder lied. I don’t think anyone disputes that. Maybe there is still a question, among a dwindling few, about whether the lies about speed, temperature, a brightly lit parking lot that he claimed was dimly lit were maliciously intentional or just gross incompetence. But whatever the reason for all the wrong facts, there is no way you could ever trust this man to tell us what Tesla told him. Considering his history, as outlined above, he would remember it totally wrong or just lie about it. There is simply no other conclusion a rational thinking mind could draw at this point.

      1. There is simply no other conclusion a rational thinking mind could draw at this point.

        You’re HIGH-larious. But sadly, most of your comments are insulting. If you want to discuss having your account reinstated, contact me at my name at this domain.

      2. I’m pretty sure what’s going on in your mind isn’t what I would call rational but it does have a lot in common with fanatical.

  11. I have a good friend I’ve known for 20 years.  Went through graduate school with him.  We are the same age.  He’s honest, and he’s a smart fellow.  Well above average intelligence.  He and I both own and use Product X.  For reasons I cannot fathom, he is somewhat intimidated (and/or otherwise offput) by Product X, and has never embraced it with the enthusiasm necessary to properly learn how to use it.  Not that it’s exceedingly complicated, but it does require a minimal amount of specialized knowledge and occasional attention.  His X and mine perform precisely the same way.  I love mine.  Yet he is endlessly frustrated with his.  It eludes him.  If he’d learn a few simple things about it, it would not.  It’s not that Product X is beyond him; it is more a case of him having an unrealistic expectation that Product X should be more self-mainaining than it could possibly be.  He will not invest the extra time needed to run it properly.  If I were to review Product X, I’d give it a sterling review.  He would call the identical item frustrating, and say it was lacking.  Yet that would be his honest assessment.  Unknowingly self-hampered, but honest.  In my opinion, my friend is probably not the best person to objectively review Product X.  But from his perspective, I probably seem like too much of a Product X fanboy to give an objective review. That’s the scenario I see reflected in all this Tesla hoo-ha. Until the day machines write all the reviews with perfect objectivity, we’re stuck with imperfect humans and their imperfect positions.

  12. Broder’s not lying. He is removed from objective reality, as are many, many people.

    I worked for a printing company for seventeen years. We had a self serve copier area, and eventually we added a self serve color copier. This copier had a sign on it’s lid in three inch high letters “THIS IS A COLOR COPIER. EACH COPY IS $.99.” It had a sign behind it explaining everything one needed to know about the color copier. IT HAD A NEON SIGN ABOVE IT!!! The sign said “KODAK Color Copies”. Our self serve customers could not find it without a guide dog. The ones who did find it wanted black and white copies, but would make 200 or 300 color copies before noticing. Their question was then, “Do I have to pay for these?” We thought we might need to add strobe lights, sirens  and a recorded message with a proximity switch to solve the issue. People are stupid and ignorant. They bumble through the day like big dogs knocking shit over and shedding on the furniture. “Uh, something broke. Uh, it wasn’t me. But you told me to do it. Well, I thought you did. No, now I’m sure of it. You told me to break it. Well it’s not my fault, there should have been a sign. There was a sign? Well, it should have been bigger and had strobes and sirens.”

    This is Broder, equivalent to my color copy customers, blithely driving an unfamiliar car like it was the usual Family Truckster he pilots every day. He gets confused, as this isn’t the Family Truckster, and the gauges give him a fright. He calls technical support. All questions are rendered in Broderese. The tech support people attempt to decipher and give pertinent answers, which Broder understands imperfectly, as he is listening with his NYT reporter’s ego’s ear, causing him to do something that actually is the opposite.

    “UH, hullo, Tesla?”
    “Yes Mr. Broder?”
    “The gauge is near zero and the nearest Supercharger is 61 miles.”
    “Alright. Are you at place where you can charge now?”
    “Well, begin charging, sir, once you have sufficient charge, we’ll see about getting you on the road to that supercharger.”
    “Great! ‘Bout “how long do you think it’ll be?”
    ” Well I can’t make predictions over the phone, but you are going to have to charge for at least an hour, and probably a lot more.”
    “So you think I could be back on the road in an hour, huh, maybe?”
    “It’s possible, but I would count on it.”
    “That would really be good, ‘coz I gotta get rolling.”

    Broder leaves the conversation convinced that he only needs to charge for an hour, and this comes straight from Tesla technical support.

    People don’t read signs. People don’t listen. If the Supercharger was a snake it would have bit Broder. Just be glad he writes for the Times and doesn’t read x-rays. He’d probably see gorillas where there are none.

  13. I learned more from the comment sections on these articles than any other source.  What I learned made me sad.  Is it not possible to very much support electric cars and still think that perhaps the reviewer was not in the wrong?

    1. No. This is the internet. All people must pick a side on all things. Available sides are always 1) the other side is composed of luddites who hate data and truth or 2) the other side came with preconceived notions based on their hatred of data and truth, while my side kept an open mind.

      Opinions must always be argued with the vehemence of an Israeli right-winger and a Palestinian screaming at each other about the the Israli/Palestinian conflict. Anything less would be uncivilized. 

      After all, we wouldn’t want a conversation with the chance of two people understanding each other as human beings with divergent viewpoints.

  14. Any one who uses one test to make blanket statements is an idiot.  Any people who accept one test as an example of anything but a particular event are also idiots.  If you use it to indicate that people who don’t use common sense shouldn’t use new technology, then perhaps they have made a point.
    When I am wearing my “tech support” hat, I know that within anyone’s statement of their view of reality, there is a measure of truth.  It may also and often is, inaccurate.  It is mixed with personality defences from “I didn’t do it!” to “no one told me that!” and the grand series of other modifiers to reality.
    I don’t know what standard we are expecting from journalists, but when they are providing a person account of a particular experience, they are subject to these as much as any one else.  There is no code of conduct which will protect us from that.
    It’s up to the readers to sieve the truth from the various sources before deciding on the nature of reality.  That there is so much to deal with in that regard makes the outcome random.  For those interested enough, they will pursue the details and do the extra and repeated tests required to make reality more available to the rest of us.  Until that happens we are simply making character judgements based elements that have nothing to do with reality.

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