In a segment about identity theft, a local affiliate here, KTLA, featured its technology reporter telling viewers about the dangers of certain e-mails that can take unsuspecting computer users to criminal websites where their personal information will be stolen. The story featured software designed to combat the e-mails, as well as interviews with representatives of the software firm. The reporter explained how the software worked, but left out another piece of what media observers call a crucial bit of information, namely, where the interviews, script, and video footage came from.
The answer is a tried and true PR tool known as a VNR, or video news release, an information "package" that may cost a company up to $25,000 to produce and send out to TV stations. This particular VNR, paid for by software firm Trend Micro, edited and revoiced by the reporter, was subsequently syndicated to more than 150 TV stations across the country.
VNRs and other things such as payments to news stations for product placement in a story are at the heart of a new round of inquiries into commercial influences on broadcast TV, this time focusing on local newscasters. While these tools are not new, what is new is the scope of their usage, say media watchers, as alleged in a study released earlier this month by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a watchdog. The group tracked 36 VNRs for 10 months and revealed a widespread pattern of usage without disclosure by local TV stations. Some 77 stations aired nearly 100 VNRs, a third of them in their entirety.
"I was stunned by the scope," says FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who says the allegations violate the heart of broadcasting law, established in 1927. While he acknowledges stations may use footage obtained from outside sources, he says it must be clearly identified as such. "The public has a right to know who is trying to persuade them." Adelstein says the FCC is launching an investigation into whether such usages constitute a violation of FCC technical requirements for disclosure. If so, the stations could face fines.
(KTLA declined to discuss use of VNRs in its newscast.)
Newscasters across the country say government action is not necessary. The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) has guidelines for disclosure requirements, and most newsrooms have either written or well-understood directives.
"Anything we put on the air, not generated by us, we should divulge where we got it," says Brad Remington, vice president and news director at KTVI, a St. Louis station named in the CMD study. He acknowledges that violations can take place, but says they are rare and isolated. "Most of our people know not to use them," he says, adding that the use of a VNR on his station "was a mistake, which I'm not happy about."
In the wake of concern over the use of government VNRs a year ago, RTNDA reaffirmed the guidelines for its roughly 3,000 members, says president Barbara Cochran. "It's a matter of ethics and responsibility of the news organization itself to be honest with its audience and protect the integrity of the news product," says Cochran. "It should be market forces not government regulation that protects it."
Broadcasters have a special obligation, says Matt Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, particularly when it comes to the news. "Consumers are used to watching the news and putting on a filter when the commercial comes on," he says, but undisclosed commercial messages inside the newscast abuse that. "If broadcasters are addressing consumers when that 'filter' is off, it's reducing the newscast to little more than a corporate blog."
Another factor is public dependence on TV news. A recent Harris Poll found that 77 percent of adults rely on local TV news and 71 percent use national or cable news several times a week or daily.
Felling calls VNRs and other commercialization, "the wolf in sheep's clothing of today's media age." And while market forces may help correct the problem, they are also part of the problem, say other observers.
"Some of these stations are really strapped for resources," says Nancy Tamosaitis, president of Vorticom, a PR agency in New York. The VNRs provide material which stations may not be able to get themselves, she adds. And while she's not against labeling the sources, she says it's not always possible. "They're working with these lean teams, and they're just not able to provide the due diligence, even if they would like to."
Other PR professionals maintain that labeling is no longer necessary. "Most people are savvy enough in this day and age that they know they have to investigate a product before they buy," says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, based in Atlanta. Beside that, he says, "People are more suspicious of the media today than they've ever been."
But that cynicism is what makes transparency on the part of the newscasters that much more important, says Diane Farsetta, co-author of the CMD study. The difficulty of detecting a VNR was one of the motivations for conducting the study, she says, adding this cautionary observation: "The perception is that the local news is worse than the national newscasters," she says, "but the practices are present at both the local and the national level, particularly now that many, if not most, of the parent companies of TV stations also own entertainment and film companies."
While it is extremely difficult to know for certain whether you have just watched commercially sponsored messages, one public-relations pro who has been producing VNRs for years says she has developed something of a nose for prepackaged news. "Look for footage that a camera crew wouldn't have had time to go do," says Nancy Tomaitis, pointing to a recent story about a technique for toilet training a cat. Some of the footage involved a cat in a precarious perch. "There was a lot of time and thought involved in getting the cat to do that," she adds.