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Guest Posting: Feds Should Stop Fake Video News

Earlier this week I posted this piece about video news releases (VNRs) and their undisclosed use by TV “news” programs. I loathe the practice, but worry more about the negative consequences of federal intervention, which some favor, than the good it might do. Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, one of the organizations calling for intervention, sent me the following rebuttal, which I post in full here. I’ll respond in another posting.

By Diane Farsetta

1. Why VNRs aren’t like print press releases.
A verbatim reprint of a print press release, with a reporter adding her/his byline to it and falsely presenting it as her/his own reporting, is an occasional misuse of the material. With VNRs, both the explicit goal (of the PR firm and paying client) and the overwhelming practice by TV stations is to wholly replace reporters with publicists, without disclosure. Between our two reports — which include every single instance of VNR usage that we were able to document — nearly 90 percent of the 140 VNR broadcasts were “news” segments where all of the video and all of the information presented came directly from the VNR package.

In addition, video is information dense, allowing for multiple sub-texts which make it a far more persuasive medium than the printed word. Even a cursory reading of the PR trade press makes clear that broadcast PR firms use these sub-texts to the hilt. Or, just look at some of the examples in our two VNR reports — the omnipresent Allstate logo lurking behind spokespeople in that company’s VNRs (one example here), the presentation of a corporate-friendly (if not -funded) climate change skeptic as an authoritative “expert” in an academic-looking setting (here, or filling the screen with cute children that “need” the protection offered by the VNR funder’s products (two of several examples here andhere).

2. Why FCC involvement is appropriate.
Undisclosed VNRs have been flagged as a serious and contentious issue several times, going back to at least 1991. Each time VNRs have come to the public’s attention — be it due to a Consumers Union report, a GAO finding that undisclosed government VNRs are covert propaganda, or an ongoing FCC investigation — PR firms and TV stations have paid lip service to disclosure but have done little, if anything, to ensure viewers’ right to know where their news comes from. This is exactly when regulation is warranted — when private entities have repeatedly proven themselves unwilling or unable to act responsibly.

The FCC is the agency responsible for overseeing U.S. media and communications systems and, as you know, it already has sponsorship identification requirements that apply to VNRs, as the agency stated in its unanimously-passed April 2005 Public Notice. Moreover, there is long historical, legislative and judicial precedent affirming the FCC’s responsibility to act in the public interest. Your column states that “broadcasters have fewer First Amendment rights than other media creators,” but it’s important to note that there is no First Amendment right to breach federal regulations, to systematically mislead viewers, or to renege on the responsibilities detailed in broadcasters’ FCC licenses.

Most importantly, what we’re talking about is just disclosure of VNRs — something like an on-screen label reading, “Video provided by General Motors.” Disclosure does not keep TV stations from airing VNRs, or PR firms from producing them. What it does is avoid the wholesale deception and manipulation of news audiences.

As a side note, the analogy to indecency cases is wholly inaccurate. Whether broadcast material was funded by and provided on behalf of an outside party is a black and white question; indecency involves shades of gray that depend on community norms and personal values. In addition, FCC enforcement of its sponsorship identification rules with regard to VNRs, would result — at most — in stations being fined not for airing VNRs, but for airing VNRs without disclosure.

Lastly, relying on “public-spirited nonprofits, bloggers, and others” to watchdog the broadcast news industry is utterly impractical and a recipe for an industry race to the bottom. Our two reports — which took a year and a half and significant funding to produce — looked at less than two percent of the total number of VNRs being offered to TV newsrooms during that time. Would you ask environmental groups to take sole responsibility for monitoring illegal industrial waste dumping? Independent watchdog groups play an important role in our national system, but their information and advocacy supplements government’s legislative, regulatory and police functions. Watchdog groups do not, could not and should not be called upon to replace government functions.

3. Why TV news is important.
Television remains the number one news source in the United States. It is truly massive mass media. While there are a growing variety of media options today, TV remains the dominant news source. No blog, podcast, radio station, cable access TV station, newspaper, etc, reaches as large an audience.

When researchers, reporters, commentators, federal agencies and others turn their collective back on TV as not “serious,” what are the implications for the tens of millions of news viewers? What are the implications for other forms of journalism, which are also targeted and infiltrated by deceptive PR, marketing and propaganda? Should broadcasters have any responsibility to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as currently mandated by the Communications Act?

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