Will "Fake News" Survive?

Will ongoing investigations and public outrage be sufficient to end the debased media practices that result in "fake news"?

Producers of the fake TV news stories called video news releases (VNRs) hope not. Some are worried, though. "Crisis" is the word Kevin McCauley of the public relations trade publication O'Dwyer's used in a recent column.

VNR producers are struggling to find allies, even within the PR industry. For the last three weeks, O'Dwyer's has been running an online poll asking, "Should there be a limit on the U.S. Government's use of video news releases?" Seventy-two percent of respondents to date support VNR restrictions. (O'Dwyer's doesn't disclose the number of respondents.)

VNR producers may very well be thanking their lucky stars for the Bush White House.

Larry Moskowitz, the CEO of Medialink Worldwide, one of the oldest and largest VNR producers, alluded to Beltway support for the beleaguered industry during a teleconference of leading VNR company representatives. "We've had private discussions up on The Hill. And we've had private discussions with the White House," he said, adding that Medialink had decided "to not enter that fray, to just say whatever the highest standard is we're happy to meet."

So what should the "highest standard" be? Many VNR producers claim that the status quo is fine -- or it would be, if it weren't for those lazy television stations. VNR sponsors, they point out, are disclosed on video frames prior to the actual, broadcast-ready piece. Therefore, they rather disingenuously claim, any deception of the viewer is solely the fault of the broadcaster.

But Bob Priddy, the chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, bluntly stated in an interview with Fox News that stations that air VNRs without identifying the sponsor to their viewers not only break the Association's code of ethics, but also are "lying to their consumer."

Medialink's Moskowitz contends that it is "murky" just what the highest standard should be. Perhaps, he suggested on the teleconference, it could just be a proper "sign-off" from the VNR narrator. Indeed, signoffs on VNRs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Broadcast Media & Technology Center have recently changed, from "I'm [name] reporting" to "I'm [name] from the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Moskowitz dismissed as impractical a Council of Public Relations Firms proposal for an onscreen logo, or "bug," present in every frame of provided video footage. "I think it would diminish the use by broadcasters. I think it would be pointless to viewers, and if any broadcaster wanted to use the thing, they probably [would] cover it over with their own bug," he said. Broadcasters determined to avoid pesky questions about where their content comes from have previously, and would presumably continue, to edit sign-offs, too.

It quickly becomes obvious, in following these PR industry dialogues, that "highest standard" proposals undesirable for VNR producers and their corporate and government clients are quickly labeled "impractical." Indeed, it's hard to imagine any "highest standard" that doesn't include full disclosure to viewers on the source of any externally-supplied video footage (or audio feed or print material).

When considering "fake news," it's important to know that the vast majority of VNRs produced are for corporations. For this reason, VNR producers are happy to have media attention focused on government VNRs.

"Let's remember this debate, from everyting I've seen, read, heard, and talked to, is purely the government," Moskowitz counseled his fellow VNR producers, adding, "I would hate to see it broaden." Doug Simon of D S Simon Productions suggested that greater transparency may have relatively little impact on the industry if it were limited to government VNRs, without "crossover into the private sector."

If deceiving the viewer is unethical, why would it matter whether a corporation or government agency is doing the deceiving? Kevin Foley from VNR producer KEF Media Associates argued that he sees a distinction between "government propaganda" selling controversial policies and corporate videos hustling commercial products.

"If it's a new healthcare product that got FDA approval, you know, it's something people would want to know about. And I think that's fairly harmless and I don't think people are going to walk away with any sort of sinister sense that something sinister is going on," Foley said.

But many people do see "fake news" as sinister, regardless of who's behind it. Moreover, "fake news" is an issue for people concerned about media reform, corporate power, media literacy and war. The issue has merged with other Bush administration media controversies, including payments to conservative commentators Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, and the inclusion of fake reporters in White House press briefings -- not to mention media manipulation around the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has ruled that, to avoid breaching the ban on covert government propaganda, federal agencies funding VNRs must disclose their sponsorship to viewers. Even though the GAO ruling was dismissed by the Bush-friendly Department of Justice and Office of Management and Budget, agencies are likely to be wary. The decision by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy to stop using VNRs may be just the first sign of retreat.

The lodging of a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission by the Center for Media and Democracy and the national media reform group Free Press opens up a new and potentially broad front in the fight against fake news. An FCC finding against inadequate disclosure will affect corporate, government and non-profit VNRs. Even if the first complaint is unsuccessful, more are likely to follow.

For the PR industry, the biggest risk is that what started as a debate about U.S. government propaganda might become a much broader debate about all "fake news" -- including VNRs, audio news releases, press releases published verbatim, "branded journalism," embedded journalists, reporter conflicts-of-interest, and corporate-funded photos.

For the public interest, that's exactly what needs to happen.

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