Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs
Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, Center for Media and Democracy
November 14, 2006
This report includes:
- Video footage of 33 video news releases (VNRs), plus the television news segments that incorporated them;
- A map showing the locations of the television stations throughout the United States that aired this fake news;
- An itemized list of the television stations that aired this fake news, by state; and
- Sections on frequently asked questions about VNR disclosure and policy issues, and on research methodology.
Note: This report is also available in PDF format, at www.prwatch.org/pdfs/CMD_Report_Public.pdf
The ongoing controversy over video news releases has not stopped television stations from airing the fake news segments without attribution. Over six months, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) documented 46 stations in 22 states airing at least one VNR in their newscast. Of the 54 total VNR broadcasts described in this report, 48 provided no disclosure of the nature or source of the sponsored video. In the six other cases, disclosure was fleeting and often ambiguous. Ten of the TV stations named in this study were also cited in CMD's April 2006 "Fake TV News" report, for undisclosed VNR broadcasts. These findings suggest that station and industry codes of conduct—not to mention an ongoing investigation by the Federal Communications Commission—are not sufficient to ensure the public's right to know who seeks to persuade them via television news, the most widely used information source in the United States.
Report highlights include:
- WTOK-11 in Meridian, MS, aired without disclosure a VNR titled, "Global Warming: Hot Air?" The segment ridiculed claims that increased hurricane activity is related to global warming. The VNR was funded by TCS Daily, a website then published by the PR and lobbying firm DCI Group, which counts ExxonMobil among its clients.
- In 12 instances, television stations actively denied disclosure to their news audiences by editing out on-screen and verbal client notifications included in the original VNRs. WMGM-40 in Philadelphia aired a full-length VNR after making just one edit—to remove the on-screen disclosure. A WMGM-40 reporter re-voiced the VNR, following the original script nearly verbatim, but omitting the verbal disclosure at the end of the script.
- In four instances, television stations not only aired VNRs without disclosure, but showed PR publicists on screen, as though they were staff reporters. KHON-2 (Honolulu, HI) and KFMB-8 (San Diego, CA) allowed publicist Mike Morris to "report" on Halloween traditions (and promote his client, General Mills), while KVCT-19 (Victoria, TX) and KSFY-13 (Sioux Falls, SD) showed publicist Kate Brookes "reporting" on medical advancements (specifically, machinery produced by her client, Siemens).
- Ten television stations named in this study had previously been cited in the April 2006 "Fake TV News" report for undisclosed VNR broadcasts, including such major market stations as New York City's NY1 and WPIX-11, WDAF-4 in Kansas City, MO, and WSYX-6 in Columbus, OH. Only two of the 10 stations previously cited—Philadelphia's KYW-3 and Cincinnati's WCPO-9—provided disclosure of their more recent VNR broadcasts.
Video news releases are pre-packaged broadcast segments designed to look like television news stories, that are funded by and scripted for corporate or government clients. (See "Fake TV News: Introduction.") On April 6, 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy released a comprehensive report detailing TV newsrooms' use of VNRs. The report, "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," named 77 TV stations that aired at least one of 36 VNRs tracked over a ten-month period. Not once were the clients behind the segments—such as Pfizer, Intel and General Motors—disclosed to news audiences.
The response to CMD's report was significant. In August 2006, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an investigation of the 77 stations named. According to the FCC's April 2005 Public Notice, TV stations airing VNRs "must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material."
CMD continued to track VNRs following the release of the "Fake TV News" report. Knowing that previous public scrutiny had resulted in little change in the production or use of VNRs (see "The Professional Opposition" section of "Fake TV News: Recommendations"), CMD sought to determine whether the broadcast PR firms that create VNRs and/or the TV newsrooms that air them were changing their practices. The results are especially interesting, in light of a coordinated industry attack on CMD's initial report and allegations that the report and resulting FCC investigation have had "a chilling effect" on TV newsrooms. (See "Frequently Asked Questions.")
The Center for Media and Democracy's follow-up research indicates that viewers are still routinely deceived by fake TV news. From April through October 2006, CMD documented 46 stations in 22 states airing at least one of 33 different video news releases. (See "Methodology.") The total number of VNRs tracked for this study—109—represents just two percent of the estimated 5,000 VNRs offered to U.S. television newsrooms over a six-month period.
Eighty-nine percent of the VNR broadcasts documented—48 of the 54 examples in this report—included no disclosure whatsoever of the nature or source of the sponsored video. The six remaining VNR broadcasts exhibited different approaches to disclosure. However, none approached the level recommended by CMD: continuous on-screen notification of the client that funded the VNR. (See "Fake TV News: Recommendations.")
The strongest level of disclosure observed in this report was provided by KSFY-13 in Sioux Falls, SD, though it can hardly be attributed to the station's initiative. KSFY-13 aired a complete and uncut VNR from the broadcast PR firm D S Simon Productions, complete with narration by publicist Sonia Martin. At the end of both the VNR and the KSFY-13 segment, the words "Video provided by American College of Physicians, publisher of Annals of Internal Medicine" briefly flashed on the screen and Martin signed off, "On behalf of the American College of Physicians, I'm Sonia Martin."
This built-in client notification appears to be a new practice at D S Simon, likely in reaction to CMD's "Fake TV News" report. While a step in the right direction, most stations airing D S Simon VNRs deleted the notifications from their newscast, thus actively denying disclosure to their news audiences. CMD documented 15 newscasts that included footage from D S Simon VNRs with built-in client identification; 12 of the 15 failed to provide any disclosure to audiences. It's hard to imagine how this could be due to simple human error, as many stations claimed following the release of the "Fake TV News" report.
Questionable approaches to disclosure seen include fleeting and/or ambiguous on-screen labels. Such marginal attempts, coupled with the variety of approaches used, suggest that the FCC needs to clarify what constitutes the requisite "clear" disclosure of a VNR's "nature, source and sponsorship," as stated in the agency's April 2005 Public Notice. The FCC should also work, in concert with TV stations and broadcast PR firms, to ensure that minimum standard is met in practice.
There were more subtle changes in TV newsrooms' use of VNRs, compared to what CMD documented in April's "Fake TV News" report. Stations cited here were more likely to edit VNRs, as opposed to running them in their entirety. Eighty-five percent of VNR broadcasts contained edited footage, versus 64 percent in the earlier report. Stations cited here were also more likely to have local staff re-voice the publicist's original VNR narration. Eighty-five percent of VNR broadcasts had been re-voiced, versus 61 percent in the earlier report. Lastly, stations cited here were more likely to supplement the VNR material with other video. Twenty-two percent of segments included outside video, versus 13 percent in the earlier report. However, in one case, the additional video appears to have come from other VNRs. Other segments included what looks like promotional video or generic background footage.
In sum, television newscasts—the most popular news source in the United States—continue to air VNRs. Overwhelmingly, stations fail to offer any disclosure of the nature or source of the sponsored video. When TV stations do make some attempt at disclosure, it is fleeting and often ambiguous. Broadcast PR firms and TV stations appear to have done little to constructively address the serious problems documented in the "Fake TV News" report, even following the August 2006 launch of the ongoing FCC investigation into undisclosed VNRs.