Fake TV News: Frequently Asked Questions

Submitted by Daniel Price on

Video News Release Questions

What are video news releases (VNRs)?
VNRs are pre-packaged "news" segments and additional footage created by broadcast PR firms, or by publicists within corporations or government agencies. VNRs look and sound like independently-gathered reports, but are designed to promote the products, services, public image and/or point of view of the client(s) who funded them. Broadcast PR firms freely provide VNRs to television newsrooms, and often contact newsrooms to encourage them to include the segments in their programs.

Aren't VNRs just the video equivalent of print press releases?
No. While print press releases are primarily a tool to attract the attention of journalists, VNRs are often used to replace journalists entirely. Of the 87 times that the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) documented TV stations airing VNRs, stations only added independently-gathered footage or information to the segment in seven instances. Every other time, the aired report was built entirely from the VNR footage and script. Thirty-one times, TV stations aired the entire pre-packaged VNR without a single edit.

What's wrong with TV newsrooms using VNRs?
Viewers have a right to know where their news comes from. For instance, CMD documented three TV stations airing a VNR about a prescription skin cream that was funded by the pharmaceutical company that makes the cream. None of the stations disclosed the source of the segment to their viewers. That's against the ethical guidelines of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which state, "News managers and producers should clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by corporate or other non-editorial sources."

Of the 87 instances of VNR use documented by CMD, only once was there partial disclosure; the TV station identified the broadcast PR firm, but not the paying client, behind the VNR. In all other cases, the stations failed to include any disclosure. Worse, every TV station actively disguised VNRs as their own journalistic products. That's a direct violation of professional guidelines and a betrayal of the public trust.

How long have TV stations been using VNRs?
By most accounts, VNRs have been in use for some 25 years. According to a November 1983 New York Times article by Kirk Johnson, "Most big public relations firms now have video departments that produce video news releases for use by local television stations."

Don't most VNRs come from government agencies?
No, though the focus of recent debates has been government-produced and/or -funded VNRs, such as the VNRs produced for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote changes to the Medicare program. However, the vast majority of VNR clients are private entities. In May 2004, the chair of the largest U.S. broadcast PR firm, Medialink Worldwide, told PR Tactics magazine that government agencies account for only five percent of his business; the rest comes from corporations, PR firms and non-profit organizations.

What kind of companies use VNRs for favorable news coverage?
Of the VNRs that CMD tracked, 47 of the 49 sponsors were corporations selling everything from candy and flowers to insulin and TV displays for shopping malls. Some companies, such General Motors, used VNRs to recruit auto technicians and to promote GM as the pioneer of online car shopping—a demonstrably false claim.

How are VNRs announced and distributed to TV stations?
Broadcast PR firms announce their VNR offerings to TV news producers through phone, fax and e-mail pitches. The VNRs themselves are distributed by videotape, by satellite transmission, or through digital content delivery systems such as Pathfire, which allow newsrooms to preview and download VNRs in a matter of minutes.

How many VNRs are provided to TV stations each year?
Although the VNR industry is large and influential, there's not much information available on it. In March 2005, the New York Times noted that Medialink "produces and distributes about 1,000 video news releases a year, most commissioned by major corporations." A December 2000 study by Mark Harmon and Candace White at the University of Tennessee estimated, "A typical newsroom may have ten to fifteen VNRs available per day." In September 1990, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists reported that "5,000 to 15,000 VNRs are distributed each year."

Are TV stations aware that they're using VNRs?
In the few occasions where a TV station has been exposed for airing a VNR without disclosure, the news director has often claimed that the station was unaware of the source of the footage. For the hundreds of VNRs and VNR announcements that CMD analyzed for this report, the broadcast PR firms clearly and accurately disclosed the client and funding information each time. It is possible—though it seems unlikely—that this information may be removed by TV station personnel before the VNR reaches the newsroom. However, it does seem likely that client information may not be relayed to local stations when a network-distributed or syndicated segment incorporates a VNR.

How do TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reports?
Beyond failing to reveal the true sponsor(s) and author(s) of the segment to news audiences, TV stations use the following techniques to make VNRs appear as though they are their own, independently-gathered reports:

  • Station-branded graphics: In every VNR broadcast that CMD documented, the TV station altered the VNR's appearance by adding network-branded graphics and text overlays. When airing a VNR from a medical company, KABC-7 in Los Angeles recreated a VNR graphic, using the station's formatting, as shown below:
  • 002_VNR_display.JPEG
    Original VNR graphic (left), and KABC-7 newscast (right)
  • Station re-voice: In more than 60 percent of the VNR broadcasts documented by CMD, the TV station had a local reporter replace the original VNR narration with their own. Sometimes local reporters followed the original VNR script word-for-word (examples here, here and here). Sometimes, the station anchor introduced a local reporter, who then presented the VNR as if she or he produced and investigated it (examples here, here, here and here).
  • Introducing publicists as reporters: In nearly half of the instances where CMD documented TV stations airing VNRs with the publicist's narration, the station anchor introduced the publicist by name, implying that they were reporters. In one instance, this misrepresentation was stated outright. An anchor at WSJV-28 in South Bend, IN, introduced a VNR's narrator as "FOX's Andrew Schmertz," even though Schmertz was a Medialink publicist working on behalf of General Motors.

Such techniques, in addition to the lack of disclosure, make it impossible for viewers to tell the difference between legitimate news reports and sponsored promotional segments.

Why do TV newsrooms use VNRs?
Although the local TV news business is extremely lucrative (pre-tax profit margins can go as high as 40 to 50 percent), the companies that own TV stations have been expanding news programming without adding news personnel. As a result, stations increasingly air provided material. Every minute a station airs a VNR, it saves considerable time and money by not having to produce, film and edit its own footage. The financial factors behind VNR usage are detailed in the "Introduction" section of this report.

Why don't TV stations disclose VNRs to news audiences?
The only people who can definitively answer this question are news personnel at TV stations that air VNRs. However, it seems safe to assume that one factor is not wishing to admit to news audiences that the station airs provided, sponsored footage.

Weren't VNRs recently found to be propaganda?
In 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that any government-produced and/or -funded VNR that does not make its source clear to news audiences constitutes illegal covert propaganda. This ruling does not apply to VNRs from private entities. In addition, the U.S. Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget rejected the GAO ruling, claiming that government VNRs are permissible as long as they are "informational."

Who has the authority to regulate VNRs?
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has jurisdiction over all television and radio broadcasters. In its April 2005 Public Notice on VNRs, the FCC reminded broadcasters that the Federal Communications Act requires them to "inform their audience, at the time of airing: (1) that such matter is sponsored, paid for or furnished, either in whole or in part; and (2) by whom or on whose behalf such consideration was supplied."

Satellite Media Tour Questions

What is a satellite media tour (SMT)?
An SMT is an organized series of interviews funded by one or more clients. While the interview format allows local TV station anchors to have some input, the focus and scope of the segment are determined by the client(s), making them little more than live recitations of VNRs. SMTs documented by CMD promoted everything from chain restaurants to stain removers. In one SMT, the interviewee recommended against products from the SMT clients' competitors.

What's wrong with TV newsrooms using SMTs?
The public has a right to know where their news—including interviews—comes from. If TV stations don't disclose the client(s) behind an SMT, viewers will believe they're getting unbiased advice or information from an independent authoritative source, when in truth they're receiving little more than covert advertising.

Of the 11 SMT "interviews" documented in this report, only one station provided partial disclosure to its audience. An anchor at WLTX-19 in Columbia, SC, said the segment was "provided by vendors," but did not name the four corporations behind the SMT.

If they're interviews, can't the TV station ask whatever questions they want?
Yes, theoretically, but in all 11 SMT examples documented by CMD, there were no critical questions. In each case, the station anchor did not even attempt to deviate from the script that showcased the SMT clients' products.

How are SMTs related to VNRs?
SMTs and VNRs are often two complementary aspects of larger PR campaigns. Every SMT documented in this report was released in conjunction with a related VNR featuring the same product(s) and talking points.

How are SMTs pitched to TV stations?
Similar to VNRs, broadcast PR firms announce their SMT offerings to TV news producers through phone, fax and e-mail pitches. However, unlike VNRs, which can aired simultaneously on multiple stations, SMTs have to be arranged to avoid scheduling conflicts.

How do TV stations disguise SMTs as independent interviews?
TV stations simply fail to disclose the endorsement arrangement between the interview subjects and the companies who sponsored the SMT—crucial information that would allow news audiences to better evaluate the interviewee's statements.

The Fake News Issue

Why is this issue so important?
In the United States, more people get their information from television than from any other form of news media. As this report documents, TV newsrooms routinely present VNRs as though they are their own independently researched reports, and present SMTs as if they were interviews with impartial experts.

This consistent failure to disclose "fake news" means that even the most media savvy people aren't able to evaluate the quality or integrity of TV news. While lack of disclosure may not seem important for a VNR promoting lip gloss, it certainly is for VNRs promoting health supplements and prescription drugs. Moreover, lack of disclosure is a breach of the public trust and a serious lapse in journalistic ethics.

Isn't there any way to tell which segments are fake TV news?
Unfortunately, there's no foolproof method for viewers to identify provided VNR footage or sponsored SMT "interviews." Broadcast PR firms are adroit at getting across their clients' messages while maintaining a TV news-like tone, and some TV news is bad or even promotional, without being sponsored by undisclosed clients. To make matters even more confusing, this report documents TV stations adding some VNR footage to other footage the station generated itself, and—in two cases—editing out all or nearly all of the VNR's promotional aspects. Without full disclosure, there's simply no way to know.

However, if you happen to see Robin Raskin, Julie Edelman or Valarie D'Elia on your TV screen, be wary. They're "experts" who have done VNRs and/or SMTs through D S Simon Productions. And if you see a report presented by Kate Brookes, Mike Morris, or Andrew Schmertz, change the channel. They're publicists who narrate Medialink's VNRs.

How can undisclosed fake news be stopped?
There are a few things you can do:

  • Contact the FCC and urge them to require continuous, on-screen disclosure of all fake news. Click here to sign the petition being circulated by CMD and the media reform group Free Press.
  • See which TV stations used fake news. If stations in your area aired VNRs or SMTs without disclosure, call them to complain. This map displays all 77 TV stations that CMD caught airing fake news, with links to the station's contact information, plus details on when and how they aired VNRs and/or SMTs.
  • If you work in the TV news business and have direct insider knowledge that can help CMD's ongoing efforts to expose and challenge fake news practices, please contact CMD. Your confidentiality is guaranteed, and your input can make all the difference.