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What are TV stations doing about 'fake news?'

ASK THIS | January 19, 2007

TV newscasts sometimes include sponsored videos that mimic independent reports, without providing disclosure to viewers. Here are questions about this shady practice for the TV stations in your area.

By Diane Farsetta

Survey after survey confirms that television – in particular, local TV news – is the most popular news source in the United States.  But some local TV news is neither local, nor news.  Public relations firms have produced and provided to TV stations segments called video news releases, or VNRs, since the 1980s.

VNRs are pre-packaged segments and additional video that mimic independent news reports, in order to facilitate their incorporation into TV newscasts.  However, unlike independent reports, VNRs promote the products, services, public image and/or policy agenda of the client(s) that funded them.  For example, the Bush administration commissioned VNRs promoting its Medicare prescription drug policy.  California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration funded VNRs in support of its proposed workplace rule changes.  And the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline paid for a VNR touting the company’s new flu vaccine.  All of these segments were subsequently presented to viewers as “news.”

The ethical and legal questions surrounding VNRs have been hotly debated in recent years.  In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office repeatedly ruled that government-funded VNRs that do not make their source clear to viewers constitute illegal, covert propaganda.  In March 2005, the New York Times published a front-page exposé on government VNRs, which found that “many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgment of the government’s role.” The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s “State of the News Media 2006” report found that TV stations are “producing more news without increasing their staff,” leading to “less original reporting” and newsrooms “relying more on second-hand material” like VNRs

In April 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy released a report (which I co-authored) on TV stations’ use of VNRs.  By tracking an estimated 1 percent of the total number of VNRs produced over the course of the investigation, the report identified 77 stations – including ones in major markets – that had aired sponsored segments.  “In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients’ messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research,” concluded the report.  “More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety.”

Four months later, the Federal Communications Commission launched a formal investigation of these 77 stations. The inquiry centers on whether the undisclosed VNR broadcasts violate federal sponsorship identification rules. In an earlier Public Notice on VNRs, the FCC had unanimously affirmed that the public is “entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems.”

Despite the still-ongoing FCC investigation, a November 2006 follow-up report by CMD (which I also co-authored) found a similar pattern of widespread and undisclosed VNR use. Between them, the two reports document 140 VNR broadcasts. TV stations offered clear disclosure to news audiences in only two of these instances.

Based on these results, on conversations with TV news personnel, and on academic and news reports, CMD recommends that all VNRs carry a continuous on-screen disclosure of their source, and that this disclosure be added before the VNRs are disseminated to TV stations. In conjunction with the media reform group Free Press, CMD filed formal complaints with the FCC and urged the agency to enforce the federal sponsorship identification rules. Not surprisingly, lawyers for the broadcast and public relations industries have challenged the CMD reports and called on the FCC to stop its investigation.

As this legal wrangling continues, what’s happening in TV newsrooms across the United States?  Asking the following questions of TV station news directors and/or newsroom staff will clarify what impact the VNR controversy is having on millions of Americans’ primary news source.

  • Has the the TV station ever aired a VNR?  (Check the TV station lists in the two CMD reports, here and here.)
    • If yes, what was the subject and who were the sponsors?
    • If yes, did the station disclose the nature and source of the video to viewers?
    • If yes, did the decisions resulting in the VNR broadcast comply with station policies?
  • Does the TV station have a written policy on VNR use?
    • If yes and the station allows VNRs to be used, what is the station’s policy on disclosure of VNRs and other sponsored footage?
    • If yes and the station allows VNRs to be used, are there restrictions on what types of VNRs can be used and / or under which conditions they can be used?  (For example, will the station air VNRs promoting products, or entirely derive a news segment from a VNR?)
  • Given the frantic newsroom schedule and often-high staff turnover rates, how does the TV station educate personnel about its VNR policies?  How does it enforce its VNR policies? Are systems of accountability built into the editorial process?
  • Is the TV station a member of the Radio-Television News Directors Association?  Are you aware of the RTNDA ethics code with regard to VNRs, which directs news staff to “clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by corporate or other non-editorial sources”?
  • Are you aware of the federal sponsorship identification rules? According to an FCC public notice on VNRs in April 2005, under these rules,“licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing … whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs.”
  • Are you aware of the ongoing FCC investigation into undisclosed VNR broadcasts?  Has it had any impact on the TV station’s policies or procedures?
  • What are the various ways in which the TV station receives video footage from outside sources? (For instance, from network feeds, via satellite feeds, through Pathfire or other digital feeds, from the NewsMarket or other online services?)  Do the video feeds used by the station clearly indicate the source and nature of all segments? Has there ever been confusion as to where video aired by the TV station actually came from?
  • Would you say that disclosure of VNRs and other sponsored footage is a priority for the TV station? Is it a priority for your audience? Is it a priority for other TV stations in the area?
  • Would the TV station sign a public pledge promising to always disclose when it broadcasts VNRs or other sponsored footage?
  • Do you think the current systems – voluntary industry and station codes of conduct with regard to VNRs – are sufficient to ensure news audiences’ right to know? (If yes): Then how do you explain that more than 100 TV stations were documented airing VNRs without disclosure, when the Center for Media and Democracy tracked less than two percent of the total number of VNRs produced over 16 months? (If no): Then what else is needed?
  • If the FCC were to actively enforce federal sponsorship identification rules with regard to VNRs, would the TV station need to change its policies or procedures, or would it otherwise be impacted?

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