Public release date: 18-Nov-2008
– Without strong disclosure requirements and the attention and action of TV station personnel, viewers cannot know when the news segment they’re watching was bought and paid for by the very subjects of that “report.”
Although the number of media formats and outlets has exploded in recent years, television remains the dominant news source in the United States. More than three-quarters of U.S. adults rely on local TV news, and more than 70 percent turn to network TV or cable news on a daily or near-daily basis, according to a January 2006 Harris Poll. The quality and integrity of television reporting thus significantly impacts the public’s ability to evaluate everything from consumer products to medical services to government policies.
To reach this audience—and to add a veneer of credibility to clients’ messages—the public relations industry uses 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 are designed to be seamlessly integrated into newscasts, and are freely provided to TV stations. Although the accompanying information sent to TV stations identifies the clients behind the VNRs, nothing in the material for broadcast does. Without strong disclosure requirements and the attention and action of TV station personnel, viewers cannot know when the news segment they’re watching was bought and paid for by the very subjects of that “report.”
From an ad for the broadcast PR firm D S Simon ProductionsIn recent years, the U.S. Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, journalism professors, reporters and members of the general public have expressed concern about VNRs. In response, public relations executives and broadcaster groups have vigorously defended the status quo, claiming there is no problem with current practices. In June 2005, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), Barbara Cochran, told a reporter that VNRs were “kind of like the Loch Ness Monster. Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it.”
To inform this debate, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) conducted a ten-month study of selected VNRs and their use by television stations, tracking 36 VNRs issued by three broadcast PR firms. Key findings include:
VNR use is widespread. CMD found 69 TV stations that aired at least one VNR from June 2005 to March 2006—a significant number, given that CMD was only able to track a small percentage of the VNRs streaming into newsrooms during that time. Collectively, these 69 stations broadcast to 52.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to Nielsen Media figures. Syndicated and network-distributed segments sometimes included VNRs, further broadening their reach.
VNRs are aired in TV markets of all sizes. TV stations often use VNRs to limit the costs associated with producing, filming and editing their own reports. However, VNR usage is not limited to small-town stations with shoestring budgets. Nearly two-thirds of the VNRs that CMD tracked were aired by stations in a Top 50 Nielsen market area, such as Detroit, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Thirteen VNRs were broadcast in the ten largest markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.
TV stations don’t disclose VNRs to viewers. Of the 87 VNR broadcasts that CMD documented, not once did the TV station disclose the client(s) behind the VNR to the news audience. Only one station, WHSV-3 in Harrisonburg, VA, provided partial disclosure, identifying the broadcast PR firm that created the VNR, but not the client, DaimlerChrysler. WHSV-3 aired soundbites from a Chrysler representative and directed viewers to websites associated with Chrysler, without disclosing the company’s role in the “report.”
TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reporting. In every VNR broadcast that CMD documented, the TV station altered the VNR’s appearance. Newsrooms added station-branded graphics and overlays, to make VNRs indistinguishable from reports that genuinely originated from their station. A station reporter or anchor re-voiced the VNR in more than 60 percent of the VNR broadcasts, sometimes repeating the publicist’s original narration word-for-word.
TV stations don’t supplement VNR footage or verify VNR claims. While TV stations often edit VNRs for length, in only seven of the 87 VNR broadcasts documented by CMD did stations add any independently-gathered footage or information to the segment. In all other cases, the entire aired “report” was derived from a VNR and its accompanying script. In 31 of the 87 VNR broadcasts, the entire aired “report” was the entire pre-packaged VNR. Three stations (WCPO-9 in Cincinnati, OH; WSYR-9 in Syracuse, NY; and WYTV-33 in Youngstown, OH) removed safety warnings from a VNR touting a newly-approved prescription skin cream. WSYR-9 also aired a VNR heralding a “major health breakthrough” for arthritis sufferers—a supplement that a widely-reported government study had found to be little better than a placebo.
The vast majority of VNRs are produced for corporate clients. Of the hundreds of VNRs that CMD reviewed for potential tracking, only a few came from government agencies or non-profit organizations. Corporations have consistently been the dominant purveyors of VNRs, though the increased scrutiny of government-funded VNRs in recent years may have decreased their use by TV newsrooms. Of the VNRs that CMD tracked, 47 of the 49 clients behind them were corporations that stood to benefit financially from the favorable “news” coverage.
Satellite media tours may accompany VNRs. Broadcast PR firms sometimes produce both VNRs and satellite media tours (SMTs) for clients. SMTs are actual interviews with TV stations, but their focus and scope are determined by the clients. In effect, SMTs are live recitations of VNR scripts. CMD identified 10 different TV stations that aired SMTs for 17 different clients with related VNRs. In only one instance was there partial disclosure to viewers. An anchor at WLTX-19 in Columbia, SC, said after the segment, “This interview … was provided by vendors at the consumer trade show,” but did not name the four corporate clients behind the SMT.
In sum, television newscasts—the most popular news source in the United States—frequently air VNRs without disclosure to viewers, without conducting their own reporting, and even without fact checking the claims made in the VNRs. VNRs are overwhelmingly produced for corporations, as part of larger public relations campaigns to sell products, burnish their image, or promote policies or actions beneficial to the corporation.