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Video news releases

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Video news releases or VNRs (also referred to as fake TV news) are segments designed to be indistinguishable from independently-produced news reports that are distributed and promoted to television newsrooms. TV stations incorporate VNRs into their newscasts, rarely alerting viewers to the source of the footage. While government-funded VNRs have been most controversial, most VNRs are paid for by corporations; non-governmental organizations also put out VNRs. [1] [2]

Reports

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The Center for Media and Democracy released two multimedia reports on television stations' use of VNRs, based on 16 months of original research:

A study published called "The State of the News Media 2007", a work of the "Project for Excellence in Journalism", by two University professors and a former journalism doctoral student, says that "there is increasing pressure from advertisers to integrate ads in newscasts" [3]

VNR fines

In September 2007, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission issued two notices of apparent liability, announcing its intention to fine Comcast Corporation $4000 for each of its regional cable channel CN8's five undisclosed VNR broadcasts that were documented in the Center for Media and Democracy's "Still Not the News" report [4], for a total of $20,000. [5]

In the first notice, for CN8's broadcast of the Nelson's Rescue Sleep VNR [6], the FCC said that the "extensive images and mentions of the product" triggered the need for VNR disclosure. [7] The second notice was for CN8's broadcast of the General Mills (Wheaties) [8], Trend Micro [9], Allstate [10], and General Mills (Bisquick) [11] VNRs. In it, the FCC broadened its explanation for the need for VNR disclosure, saying that "the VNR itself was the 'valuable consideration' provided to CN8." The second notice also faults CN8's broadcast of the four VNRs, saying their promotional content goes far beyond the acceptable "fleeting or transient references to products or brand names." [12]

Under viewers' radar

While expensive compared to the cost of a traditional news releases, they allow a sponsor to present its message without being filtered by journalists. They are commonly used unedited by small regional television stations that have limited budgets for news production or are understaffed. While some stations have a policy of not using VNRs, public relations practitioners commonly cater for this by also providing a series of clips designed to be used as stock footage.

On a October 2003 discussion panel on VNRs, Larry Moskowitz, the founder and President of largest VNR producer Medialink Worldwide, candidly said their use was widespread. "We determined prima facie and scientifically and electronically that every television station in America with a newscast has used and probably uses regularly this material from corporations and organizations that we provide as VNRs or B-Roll or other terminology we may use," he said. [13]

Fellow panellist and former CBS correspondent Deborah Potter, who is director of the News Lab, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit dedicated to quality local television, explained that stations were tempted to use VNRs because they made meeting filling program time slots easy. "They allow newsrooms to do less of their own work without fear of running out of material before the end of the hour. It's a concern, and it ought to be a concern, frankly, for viewers if much of the material that they're starting to get on the news isn't news," she said.

In March 2000, Candace White, marketing professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, co-authored a report with Mark D. Harmon for the Public Relations Society of America titled "How video news releases are used in television broadcasts." On the panel with Moscowitz and Potter, White said that the same self-interest that encourages news directors to use VNRs dictates that the material is used responsibly. "I trust news producers to be able to weed out true news value; I give them credit for being able to recognize blatant sales pitches. Our study found that the corporate videos were used the least, and the ones about health and safety were used the most," she said.

The Center for Media and Democracy's Executive Director John Stauber disagreed. "The use of VNRs amounts to systematic deception of viewers, both by the hidden interested parties behind them, and by news organizations with impure motives themselves," he said.

Reporting on a September 2005 seminar on new media, Media Daily News noted that VNRs "which can look like regular news stories to the unaided eye--can be placed in local or national newscasts." On that panel was Larry Moskowitz, the president and CEO of Medialink Worldwide. "If there is news in your brands we'll find a way to put your brands in your news. In a sense, it's product placement, but it's earned a place on the shelf," Media Daily News reported. [14]

Medialink Worldwide, one of the largest producers and distributors of VNRs, states in its 2003 annual report that a "VNR is a television news story that communicates an entity's public relations or corporate message. It is paid for by the corporation or organization seeking to announce news and is delivered without charge to the media." [15]

While the company likens VNRs as akin to the traditional hard copy news release, it acknowledges they are widely used in newsrooms. "Produced in broadcast news style, VNRs relay the news of a product launch, medical discovery, corporate merger event, timely feature or breaking news directly to television news decision-makers who may use the video and audio material in full or edited form. Most major television stations in the world now use VNRs, some on a regular basis," Medialink states.

KEF Media Associates explains on its website that "VNRs deliver specific client messages within the credible editorial content of a newscast." [16]

Public relations firms that produce video news releases (VNRs) aren't just targeting national news, writes Craig McGuire of PR Week. Increasingly, they're working to place their videos on local and cable stations as well as websites. "Today VNRs are much more than just broadcast placement tools. They are being targeted to a variety of audiences through web syndication, strategic placements in broadcast, cable, and site-based media in retail outlets and hospitals," says Tim Bahr, managing director of MultiVu, a leading VNR producer. And some clients are opting for "guaranteed placement," a relatively new trend in which PR firms and production houses pay media channels outright to carry what they call "branded journalism." [17]

Production and distribution

"Working closely with clients, Medialink's team of highly experienced broadcast and network radio professionals instantly translates clients' messages into effective video or audio news stories. All aspects of production, including scripting, editing, narration and sound bites of the news story are custom-built and designed to reach specifically targeted audiences," Medialink Worldwide states.

Hustling VNRs

A 'tricks of the trade' guide to VNRs in PR Week explained "don't try to fool producers by acting as though your VNR is not being pitched for promotional purposes."

"If your VNR has one or two product mentions, tell the producer immediately, but gear the bulk of the pitch toward why the piece is relevant now, what makes it newsworthy," the PR Week guide explained. [18]

By way of example, the guide pointed to a VNR produced by Medialink to promote Jennifer Lopez's perfume, Glow. The VNR, concentrated on Lopez "as a Hispanic role model and one of People magazine's recently rated most beautiful people. The story aired on E!, Good Day Live, Extra, VH1, and even some Hispanic stations in Canada."

The head of Medialink's VNR production unit, Michelle Williams, told PR Week "the viewer will take away something visual before they take away something audio. Instead of plugging a product by talking about it, showing it in use."

VNRs in the news

In a February 1992 cover article titled "Fake News" in TV Guide, David Lieberman took the media and PR industry to task over the use of VNRs. He argued that if footage from VNRs was used in news it should be labelled so that viewers were aware of its origin. If not, he argued, media outlets risked undermining their own credibility if they "pretend out of pride that what they broadcast is real news, instead of labeling it for what it is."

"There's a good chance that some of the news they [the public] see will be fake. Not that it's necessarily inaccurate. Just that it was made to plug something else. And it's something the PR community has grown skillful at providing," he wrote.

The original article generated a largely dismissive response from the PR industry. O'Dwyers PR Services Report noted that the President of Medialink, Laurence Moskowitz, wrote to Lieberman complaining that his article "lapsed into tabloid journalism, distorting what was otherwise a well thought out report on the impact of video PR on TV news." Moskowitz took issue with the Fake news headline too for creating the impression that "the news has been faked or is not valid just because a TV producer relied on a VNR for story elements."

"There would not be any business pages in newspapers, no gossip columns in any magazines, no video of the surface of the moon if it were not for PR efforts," Moskowitz wrote.

However, O'Dwyers PR Services Report reported in June 1992 the Public Relations Service Council (PRSC) saw the need to assemble a committee to develop standards governing the level of disclosure in VNRs. Later that year Moskowitz told a Medialink sponsored workshop that the PRSC had adoped a "Code of Good Practice" for VNR producers. "No VNR should tell a lie," he said.

As for the possibility that VNRs touting drugs - accounting for many of those produced - may be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Moskowitz was reported stating that it was an issue that "will go away." "VNRs are free speech. They are not forced down news director's throats," he said.

In April 1993, TV Guide once more returned to the subject with an article titled "Fake News: All the PR that News Can Use."

Bush White House defends VNRs

Following a March 2005 New York Times report on the use by government of VNRs, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked at a media briefing whether their use was "legal and legitimate ... without disclaimers that they're government productions, as long as they meet some standard of factual basis?"

"First of all, we're talking about informational news releases. And the Department of Justice has issued an opinion saying that as long as this is factual information about department or agency programs, it is perfectly appropriate. There is a memorandum that we -- or the Department of Justice sent to agencies and departments last week expressing the view of the Justice Department. And the informational news releases that you're referring to are something that had been in use for many years. It goes back to the early '90s, both in the private and public sectors; many federal agencies have used this for quite some time as an informational tool to provide factual information to the American people," he said. [19]

"And my understanding is that when these informational releases are sent out, that it's very clear to the TV stations where they are coming from. So that information, as I understand it, is disclosed. And the Justice Department opinion talks about the importance of making sure that it is factual information and not crossing the line into advocacy," he said.

President George W. Bush was asked at the American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in April 2005 whether the use of VNRs and the funding of Armstrong Williams was deceptive. "Yes, it's deceptive to the American people if it's not disclosed," he said.

After defending the use of VNRs as being legal for government agencies, Bush echoed the PR industry view that the onus for disclosure was on the broadcasters not the producers. "But it's incumbent upon people who use them to say, this news clip was produced by the federal government," he said. [20]

A few days later Bush made it clear that the government had no intention of ensuring each VNR was captioned so that stations had no option but to disclose the origin of video material to viewers. "...Local stations ought to - if there's a deep concern about that, ought to tell their viewers what they're watching," Bush said when asked if the government would ensure all VNR footage was identified. [21]

VNRs and TV Stations' bottom line

Why do local TV news stations use fake video news releases in place of real news? KEF Media Associates states on its website that the "opportunity" for the use of VNRs has expanded due to financial pressure on news rooms. "Over the last decade, network and local market newscasts have been placed under increasing pressure to become profitable. This has led to significant cost cutting in newsrooms. Because many of the cuts have been among producers and technicians whose job it is to fill the newscast time, demand has grown for news content supplied by outside sources," KEF explains. [22] On its website, VNR producer Gourvitz Communications states that that a "typical VNR costs around $18,000, and a B-Roll Package costs around $17,000." [23]

Marion Just and Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism surveyed stations and found that the audience for TV news is shrinking, while "the companies that own these stations have generally continued to expect high earnings, usually profit margins in excess of 40 percent. To meet those demands, most stations have added programming, usually without adding resources. ... We could see the effect on the air. From 1998 to 2002, a study of 33,911 television reports found, the percentage of 'feed' material from third-party sources rose to 23 percent of all reports from 14 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of stories that included a local correspondent fell to 43 percent from 62 percent. Local broadcasters are being asked to do more with less, and they have been forced to rely more on prepackaged news to take up the slack. So we don't have to search far to discover why the Bush administration has succeeded so well in getting its news releases on the air. The public companies that own TV stations are so intent on increasing their stock price and pleasing their shareholders that they are squeezing the news out of the news business." [24]

See John Stauber's March 14, 2005, blog posting "WANTED: 250,000 Americans to Fight Fake News & Government Propaganda" for more information.

What to do if you encounter Fake News on your local TV station

What should you do if you see or hear what you believe to be a Video News Release?

First, try to confirm that the segment was, in fact, a VNR:

Record all identifying information about the segment: Who was the reporter? What was the subject matter? What date and time was it broadcast? Was there any mention of the origin of the segment or disclosure that it was a paid piece? What made you think it was a VNR?

Call the station that broadcast the suspected VNR and ask to speak to the Managing Editor of the news department. If he or she doesn’t respond, then call back and ask to speak with the station manager. When you get someone in charge, identify the segment clearly and ask if the segment was a video news release. How did news segment originate? How did the reporter get the idea to cover that subject? Why was it covered the particular way it was (e.g., promoting one product, or one side of an issue only?) If they admit it was a commercially-produced VNR and that it was broadcast without being identified as such, ask them to broadcast a notice or correction on TV letting their audience know the segment was paid fake news. If they refuse, notify them that that is a reportable offense to the FCC. (Then report it -- see below for information on how to do this).

If they say they got the segment pre-packaged from an affiliate, get the name of the affiliate and the name of the person who sent it, and pursue it there, moving up the news department chain until you get someone who is accountable. (Then ask them the same questions to try and nail down the origin of the segment). If they refuse to give you any information, notify them that broadcasting a fake news segment without identifying it as such, or in return for compensation or other valuable consideration from a political or corporate entity, is a reportable offense to the FCC. (Then report it - see below).

Other steps you can take to discourage the broadcast of VNRs in your area

Assuming the segment in question is, in fact, an unattributed VNR, you could also write a letter to the editor of the local paper alerting the public to the fake news being broadcast on that station. Include information about what helped you identify it as fake, so others know how to spot them also. You could also contact a competing station to tell them about the story (although they might not pursue it if their own house is not clean). You could contact the local media reporter or a reporter at a local paper to initiate a story. You could also send a a letter to your congressional rep and senators complaining about the station’s action and asking them to refer the matter to the FCC.

How to Report VNRs to the FCC

Go to FCC.gov. On the right side of the home page, under the column titled "Bureaus and Offices," click on "Enforcement." This takes you to the Enforcement Page. On the right side of the page, under "What We Do," click on "Broadcast Issues." On the next page, under "Information You Can Use," click on the fifth line down that says, "Payola and Sponsorship Identification." There you will find the sections of the Communications Act that require broadcasters to disclose whether broadcasted matter has been aired in exchange for money, services or other valuable consideration. The page contains a table listing enforcement actions that have been taken, with links to descriptions of those actions. Below the table are instructions about How to File a Complaint. You can also access information on how to file a complaint with the FCC by clicking here.

FCC's published notice to broadcasters about VNRs

Also, on April 15, 2005, the FCC published a reminder to broadcast licensees, cable operators and other of requirements applicable to video news releases. A PDF copy of that reminder is here (pdf). This document contains the sponsorship identification rules broadcasters must follow, and a statement by FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps on the matter of VNRs, saying people in this country have a right to know where their news is coming from, and reminding broadcasters that they have to disclose government or corporate-generated "news" sources.

General Accountability Office reports

Case studies

PR firms that produce and/or distribute VNRs and B-roll

Public websites with VNRs

In addition, the websites of local television stations often post VNRs (though not identified as such) that they've aired recently.

  • Newstream.com provides news releases distributed by MediaLink, one of the largest distributors of video, audio and print news releases.
  • VMS is a commercial service. For a fee, it tracks and provides copies of VNRs appearing in the news to its corporate clients.

SourceWatch resources

People

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on VNRs

External links

References


Articles

A comprehensive listing of articles on VNRs and the debate over their use can be found at Video news releases: External Links.