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The Media is Corrupt

Our Bias Is Showing

Words by Cam McRae.
May 6th, 2014

How can you tell if a journalist is lying? When they tell you they are unbiased. In this case their bias starts at home, with their opinion of themselves. Social scientists know that even small factors influence our perception, which can produce bias. Everything from where we live to who our friends are slants our perspective. You may find this farfetched, but this applies to those of us who write about mountain bikes as well.

Research reliably demonstrates how knowing a little about someone, without even meeting them, allows us to see things from their perspective. This makes us judge them, and anything we associate with them, through rosier lenses. The more we know, the more biased we become. This is why no mother’s son is guilty of murder. Which means that knowing the people who design and market the bikes and components we review can influence our opinion.

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And then there are media trips. If you are flown to Italy or Moab or Chile to try a new product, the odds are low that you’re going to shit all over it when it comes time to muster your thoughts. Thanks for the good times! Your product sucks! When people treat you like a rock star you tend to like them – and the things that they want you to like.

What about consumer reviews? Sadly these have inherent biases as well. After he’s done his research and shelled out cash Joe Rider thinks he nailed it (known as post-purchase rationalization). Joe (like all of us) knows he’s pretty smart and that he makes good decisions. He studied the angles, talked to shop rats and his buddies and spent hours on the web making sure he had it right. Otherwise that hole in his wallet is going to fester and burn. Joe wants to look awesome online so he’ll put some effort into convincing you his decision was the best one. And that may, or may not, be true.

Back to nsmb.com; we are biased (and sexy) and we know it. How do we sleep at night?

Here are the four rationalizations that allow me to doze off.

We Aren’t Trying to Deceive You

When we tell you something is good we damn well believe it. The fact that I’m aware of some of the inherent biases makes me double check and seek other opinions so I can be as confident as possible about what I’m telling you. It helps that the bike industry has reached a point where most of the bikes and parts we review work very well. They may not be perfect for you, and we’ll do our best to nail down who they work for, but for the most part they don’t suck. We also pre-screen by asking for products we think our audience will like, weeding out most of the dogs.

We Tell the Truth

When a product we’ve tested has broken during the test or let us down in some other way, we own up to that. It happens and it doesn’t always mean the product is without merit. Everything breaks occasionally, but we think you deserve to know when it does.

Riders Make Good Bike Products

Bike riders are at the helm of many companies in the mountain bike world. And if not at the very top you can be sure to find die hard knobby riders in marketing and product development. They make bikes and parts they’d like to ride. Are they trying to get you to upgrade more often? Yes they are. Do they want you to spend more on your next bike than you did on your last? Yep. But for the most part they aren’t making a Chrysler and trying to convince you it’s BMW. They are however trying to convince you their bike is better than the competition – which is where we come in.

Bikes are Good

We believe in bikes. They make us fit and happy without much carbon footprint. Workers’ rights aren’t trampled in their production from what we know – at least not on the hard goods side. Modern mountain bikes are sturdy and reliable and, with a little care, will last a long time. The political agenda behind bikes works for the common good. Unlike climate change deniers, our Swiss bank account isn’t filled with cash from big oil. But we keep checking the balance just in case.

In a perfect world publications would operate without help from industry. A test bike would be purchased from a bike shop the way your average consumer does and there would be no advertising needed to keep the boat afloat (a topic for another day). Alas that world does not exist. We’re stuck with what we’ve got for the moment.

Within this framework we’re doing our best to give it to you straight. In short, from an unbiased perspective, I think we’re pretty great.

  • Jeff Monk

    Great article Cam. Its addressing things like that and bringing them out in the open that help readers made educated decisions on products.

    If I may though, a couple of suggestions on things I’d like to see in articles to really hammer home that honestly in journalism.

    1) Really give it to companies that do stupid things. Giant for example, and their stupid overdrive headset crap. Companies out there are doing stupid things, and should be called on it by media.

    2) Compare products more. For example, if you review a fork, how does it directly compare to others on the market in the same segment/ price range?

    I think both NSMB and PB have been doing a great job of being transparent and honest with the articles presented, and you should be proud. Now, there are definitely some others that are quite sketchy….

    • M_Irwin

      I agree on the comparison, but it is nice to hear when a newly released product is sets a new standard (eg. 2014 Pike) or otherwise.

  • DMVancouver

    In the words of George Costanza, it’s not a lie if you believe it.

  • tw

    I think rider/tester info ie. Weight, height and skill level should be included with every review like it is typically done with skis.

    This will help with people attempting to evaluate the relevance of some products to them. In some cases this may make no difference. However a 200 pound 6 footer is likely to perceive some equipment quite differently than a 5’9″ 150 pounder.

    I think this would enhance the reviews.

    • http://nsmb.com Pete Roggeman

      tw, that’s a good piece of input, we’ll give that some consideration.

  • Vik Approved

    #1 – Saying you don’t lie isn’t much of reassurance because if you do lie that’s what you’d say as well. ;)

    #2 – this isn’t much of an article at all – particularly on a topic that deserves some in depth discussion if you are going to bother going down that road at all.

    Sorry not to give you a fanboi slap on the back, but this post doesn’t deserve it.

    Having said that I think the whole NSMB site is excellent. The reviews and stoke pieces are solid in comparison to other MTB media options.

    I always assume there is some advertising bias in your content. That’s nothing to get mad at. People pay you to sell their products. You are on friendly terms with some of them. You need to eat. All of that is normal.

    It’s also normal for readers to be sceptical about reviews.

    That’s a healthy relationship.

    Anyone buying an expensive product like a bike would be foolish to do so on the basis of 1 review or a couple reviews from the same type of source.

    Gathering info from a bunch of different sources and throwing a leg over a demo bike gives you the full picture. It’s not always possible to do that, but it is always possible to get a few different perspectives some of whom are not being paid by the folks selling the products.

    A couple funny “incidents” that I have noticed recently in the MTB media:

    - Bike Mag replaced a review with a “new” version – it’s pretty clear Trek made some calls and BIke Mag folded. They criticized other bikes for the same reasons in their reviews [ie. Devinci Troy], but Trek has a big enough ad budget that you can’t piss them off. It’s pretty shocking how uncomfortable the BIke Mag guys look in the MK2 review. Like there is a Trek marketing guy juts off screen with a tazer ready to punish a mis-step.

    - On MTBR they posted an article outlining parts that had failed and really disappointed one writer. One the hit list where a couple Crank Bros parts and something from Shimano. That article didn’t last 3hrs before it was pulled and never seen again. At the time when I read I thought….wow this guy is really being honest and not pulling any punches.

    There are lots more if you pay attention to who advertises on site XX and the reviews/content that gets posted.

    Anyways….my advice is just do your thing. No point is saying “we don’t lie”. Folks will make up their own minds…just like in other areas of life where credibility is evaluated. NSMB is a great site.

    • http://nsmb.com Pete Roggeman

      Ah yes the liar’s paradox. Point well made, although we still believe there is value in saying something even if it’s just as easy to disbelieve for the skeptics out there. Not every publication would want to address this topic at all for fear of bringing it into the light and causing a conversation about it. We thought it was worth a mention.

      Re: length and depth, your point is fair, but we’re trying out some shorter pieces with less emphasis on photos or videos. Long form articles won’t go away, but we feel there is a home for this kind of article as well. Could Cam have gone further in depth? Yes, of course. Did he have one or two other points to make? Yes, but they may just appear as separate articles in future, allowing them to stand alone and start other discussions, which is what we want more than anything.

    • Mihr Cycles

      Ha, ha, those Bike guys are clearly under a bit of duress… compromising their principles to satisfy big brother. Shitty deal for everybody.

      • http://nsmb.com Pete Roggeman

        I can’t comment on the situation surrounding that video, and they did look pretty uncomfortable, but I will say that we know the guys at Bike and they take journalistic integrity seriously over there. Just thought it was worth mentioning in case any of you get the wrong idea.

      • Industry insider

        As someone who spent some time on the inside of the bike media scene writing reviews online for a mid sized online publication, I never experienced direct pressure to positively push something in the right direction and was left to honestly give my thoughts but if you were to say something that may of been considered close to the bone and not what a brand/distributor wanted to read they may become somewhat tricky to get hold of anything else for review…

        That then left me short on column inches and articles which in turn effectively left me with my hands tied from time to time when writing/reviewing.

        This article couldn’t be more on the money for my money though. NSMB are on it at the moment and long may it remain!

    • Cam McRae

      Thanks for the feedback Vik. I deliberately didn’t deal with advertising because, as Pete mentioned, we decided it warranted a discussion on its own.

      Would you mind telling me what you feel I omitted? And maybe an example of where the bike media has addressed this more thoroughly?

      • Vik Approved

        I don’t think the bike industry has dealt with this issue very well. Mostly it’s ignored or addressed superficially.

        I’ve had a foot inside the bike industry and the bike media [only a foot so I don't profess to full insider knowledge] and the problem with talking about this honestly and in depth is that it raises a lot of issues that cannot be nailed down cleanly.

        Saying we won’t lie or we’ll be honest. Has one thing going for it – it’s a simple and clean message.

        Getting into how advertising dollars and industry relationships affect the writers and editors as they make publication decisions is complex and will be messy. Both of these elements can and do affect what gets published and how it gets published. So if you start talking about it for real you end up in some murky waters.

        It’s the same reason why election campaign issues are not dealt with in a real way. It’s just too messy and nobody wants to go down that road.

        I can give you a road map of what points to hit on for a really thorough treatment of this topic, but I’m not going to waste my time typing it unless you are seriously interested it tackling the subject.

        To be clear I’m not being overly critical of NSMB. I think you guys do a fine job.

        I also appreciate your rationale responses to comments.

      • Morgan Taylor

        Vik, really appreciate the thoughtful comments. Regarding point 2 in your original comment: we are doing regular editorial pieces these days to get discussions going on topics that matter. Our goal is not necessarily to answer all the questions, but to open the discussion with a number of points and let the other questions surface.

      • Bryce Borlick

        This is what I think. If something is good, tell us all that its good. If something is crap, send it back to the manufacturer and tell them why its crap. We can read between the lines.

        The only journalist who is consistently very critical of bikes/equipment is Steve Jones of Dirt mag. He probably burns some bridges as a result but, on the other hand, every reader and manufacturer knows that a glowing review from Jones carries some weight.

      • Cam McRae

        I don’t believe we know each other Vik, so you don’t have much to go on, but my point in saying ‘we don’t lie’ wasn’t to suggest you should believe us more than anyone else as you seemed to think. I was actually speaking about my personal experience – literally how my integrity remains Intact. This is more important to me than views or dollars – or your opinion of me. I have no control over what you choose to believe or what judgements you make – so I’ll leave that to you.

        As far as wasting your time typing goes, you don’t seem shy about that ;) so please let ‘er rip. You suggested this ‘wasn’t much of an article at all’ so I am sincerely interested in what you think I missed – aside from what I deliberately left for a future discussion.

        Thanks as well to everyone who has given us positive feedback (you included Vik) for tackling this issue. We sometimes get hooked in the negative without acknowledging the props.

  • Henry Chinaski

    I more or less believe what you’re saying, Cam. Sleep easy.

    Your post is a response to what seems like a growing distrust of the bike industry. Two things that come to mind:

    1. A perceived large increase in marketing.
    2. A growing disparity between high end products and what everyone else is riding.

    I’m not sure if the former is real, but it would be interesting to know how marketing dollars have increased relative to engineering over the years. I’m ok with paying more for my next bike, but I’d like to think bike companies are using my money to hire knobby riding engineers instead of marketing tools. IMO, these product release extravaganzas aren’t helping. Do people really want every mtb media outlet reporting on how good a 10k bike with a 65 deg ha rides down hill in Chile? Or worse, a Moab shakedown of the “new” Guide brakes where everyone is reporting “increased lever feel”? It really starts to feel like “the man” is feeding you a shit sandwich.

    I’m of the belief that all bike consumers are increasingly getting better products for cheaper prices. That said, top end products seem to be moving further and further away from the median. IMO, this has created some genuine animosity and distrust of the industry. I bought a nicely spece’d Stumpjumper M2 in 2000 that cost me somewhere under 1k. I was in college at the time and I remember thinking; this shit ain’t too far from the top. I can now spend that on a bike for my 5 year old.

    As long as the mtb media is seemingly propping up these out of reach (for most) products, I think there will be some questioning. As Vik said, that’s probably a healthy thing.

    • http://www.jerrywillows.ca Jerry Willows

      Bike and parts are lasting longer compared to the “good old days”. The changes from year to year are not as drastic as yester year so you don’t have to upgrade bikes/part every year like we used to. This is why you see such a big push in marketing in my opinion. 650b was brought in to sell more bikes. Results in EWS and DH have shown no performance gain with the wheel size. In fact you get a heavier, weaker and flexier wheel. When everyone is on 650b and industry is not selling bikes again, there will be a huge push for 29er.

      • Vik Approved

        I don’t think most players in the bike industry benefited from the 650B wave of enthusiasm.

        Selling you another bike is great if it’s something where the R&D is done and it’s just tweaking.

        Having to throw out a whole slew of bike models and getting caught with a bunch of stock nobody wants then having to design new bikes/products to sell you a new bike isn’t so attractive.

        LBS didn’t love the move because they got caught with stock that nobody wanted and now they have to manage inventory for 3 wheel sizes.

        The change caught a lot of folks out and caused a lot of problems.

        Bike companies will be a lot happier to sell you your next 650B bike than they will this first one.

      • http://nsmb.com Pete Roggeman

        This is very true. It’s a simplistic thing to say 650B is a marketing story only. I also chuckle when people give all the credit to marketing departments for essentially running the bike industry – believe me, marketing is usually the department that is brought in last and has to figure out a way to tone down the sales and engineering hyperbole to make it palatable for the consumer. Notice I said ‘usually’ and not always. I’ve sat in the meetings and participated in the discussions, and the topic is never “how are we going to sell more shit next year?” It is always “what can we do to make a better product than the other guys and get a leg up?” That may sometimes lead to poor products or decisions, but usually (there’s that word again) the motivation comes from a good place – not a dishonest or greedy one.

    • http://nsmb.com Pete Roggeman

      I can tell you that companies are definitely NOT spending a greater percentage of revenues on marketing than they were in the past. Likely it feels that way because the internet makes it easier to see a greater percentage of what each company is putting out there. If anything, they spend less and are operating on thinner margins. Fuel surcharges and cost of raw materials are constantly being raised – often in the middle of the production cycle even when they were supposed to be ‘locked in’ – making it very difficult for manufacturers to maintain margins.

      There is no way your $1,000 Stumpy in 2000 was top of the line. Sure, it probably had some XT sprinkled on it (rear derailleur?) and a front fork, but it was also likely a mass-produced alloy frame that worked for racers but felt stiff as hell – am I right? Yep, prices are going up and it’s not all inflation, but companies wouldn’t keep putting out more and more expensive stuff if it wasn’t being bought somewhere, by someone.

      Saying the media is just propping up out of reach products is being a bit unfair, IMO. I realize you’re not deliberately being sensational and are in general taking a measured approach. And we think commentary and questioning is healthy too (we welcome it), but there’s a reason why enthusiast magazines report on new, exotic, and interesting shiny stuff: otherwise you probably wouldn’t look inside as often.

      I will end by saying that we are also interested in letting our audience know about products that aren’t the most expensive in the lineup and work great and as has been alluded to, have a few bikes that meet that description being tested right now. We’ll see how the view counts do on those reviews and then be the judge of their value to the audience ;-)

      • Henry Chinaski

        Companies are flying boatloads of bros to exotic places to ride a stable of pricey bikes and marketing budgets are getting proportionally smaller? I’ll defer to your knowledge, but call me skeptical.

        You missed my point on the Stumpy. I’m saying in 2000, the price difference from the mid level to the top end was exponentially smaller than it is now. When you have a growing disparity between what Joe Average is riding and what the people are riding on the top end, IMO there is bound to be some resentment. I’m simply saying that some of this resentment may be directed at the media outlets that are partaking. The Stumpy was/is stiff, but it survived an Ex/Dreamweaver lap last year;-)

        You think it’s unfair to say that the media is propping up these high end products. From the article:

        “If you are flown to Italy or Moab or Chile to try a new product, the odds are low that you’re going to shit all over it when it comes time to muster your thoughts. Thanks for the good times! Your product sucks! When people treat you like a rock star you tend to like them – and the things that they want you to like.”

        Maybe you don’t like “propping up” verbiage, but the media is certainly an active participant in some way, right? I’m not trying to be a dick. In fact, as someone who can afford and buy these products, I read the shit out of these reviews and occasionally suffer from upgradeitis. That makes me an active participant as well. I just don’t think we should be surprised that there are people questioning these motives. Again, it seems healthy.

      • http://nsmb.com Pete Roggeman

        Yep, they are – but companies are getting better at making their spend ‘look’ bigger. Remember that marketing budgets include a HUGE range of things: sponsorship, ad buys, PR & comm’s, photo and video, social media, website design & maintenance, and on and on…

        I did miss your Stumpy point and based on the above, I agree with you. However I also maintain that people are buying the product, so there is no end in sight as far as R&D driving incremental improvements and rising prices on the high end to match.

        My point about propping up was due to a perception that you were saying that was all they/we were doing – which is not exactly what you were saying, so I’ll relent. Either way, I am not surprised people question things, and I agree that it does seem healthy.

  • AlanB

    Thanks for explaining to my wife that bikes wear out every 5 years and after a few years they should be replaced.

  • Kast Anie

    … and dont forget to buy 650b NOW NOW NOW! :D

  • Kever

    Nsmb seems to give honest opinions and feedback, a refreshing change from every other bike website who review every product glowingly. If you give a negative review chances are the company will stop sending you product!

  • nick bitar

    We are fortunate to be in an industry where the guy selling us something probably loves bikes as much as we do. And I I find this growing cynicism kind of nasty and I believe unfounded. One look at a review on PB and the comments make you cringe! One thing is more important than advertising dollars, and thats reputation. A tarnished rep will get rid of readers and thus advertisers faster than an honest review ever will. I hope I’m not just naive.

  • Vik Approved

    This post by Bicycle Quarterly is relevant to the discussion at hand. While far from, perfect I give BQ credit for not pandering to advertisers and giving honest reviews.

    http://janheine.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/setting-our-own-trends/

    They have their flaws and their biases, but they are not related to who is buying ad space.

    The sometimes scathing reviews are refreshing for actually comparing bikes and measuring performance objectively wherever possible.

    • Cam McRae

      I have never heard of Bicycle Quarterly before but it looks interesting. That article however is unabashedly self-serving. And it seems that Jan’s blog advertises a line of components. Does he sell these components personally? Does he also review them or just recommend them? The address of Compass Components is the same as Bicycle Quarterly. They even have the same phone number. And they sell everything from tires and lights (two of the items they claim to have ‘set trends’ for) to handlebars and frame building equipment. So they are saying things like “hey we need wider tires” in print and then getting on the phone to order them so they’ll be in stock by press time. If that doesn’t expose a bias I don’t know what does.

      I also find the writing (in this instance at least) about as fresh and interesting as a 70s history textbook . The criticisms Jan identifies can certainly be levelled at some publications but certainly not all. Many of us have been calling for wider bars, shorter stems and and light bikes that are capable downhillers for years (as a few examples). It took Enduro racing’s surge in popularity for much of the industry to start paying attention, but that wasn’t because we weren’t calling for it.
      Thanks for engaging in this discussion. It’s an interesting one.