December 6, 2006

Do You Know What’s on Your TV News?

The odds are most Americans aren’t familiar with the term VNR. The acronym stands for video news release, or the TV equivalent of a press release. What is more important, most Americans also may not know one when they see one on a local TV newscast.

VNRs are stories (or may be clips from stories) that can look like real news reports but are produced—often using actors or spokespeople—on behalf of commercial clients or sometimes the government. Critics say that, if not properly identified, they amount to commercials or propaganda disguised as news. And the trade organizations representing TV stations acknowledge that it’s appropriate to disclose the sources and nature of VNRs.

What the two sides argue about, however, is whether the government should intervene to regulate the matter.

The most recent skirmish in this battle occurred in November, when the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy released a report critical of the television industry for failing to properly disclose the sources of VNRs.

The Nov. 14 report, headlined “Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs,” charged that from April through October 2006, 46 local stations around the country aired 33 different VNRs a total of 54 times. In about 90% of those cases, according to the report, those stations offered no disclosure at all and there was clear disclosure in only two cases.

This comes after a March 2005 New York Times article revealed that at least 20 federal agencies had produced and distributed hundreds of VNRs in the previous four years. One—later ruled illegal by the Government Accountability Office—involved a public relations specialist posing as a reporter to tout the No Child Left Behind program.

The non-profit’s November report, the second one issued this year by the center on stations’ failure to properly identify VNRs, was quickly applauded by the two Democrats on the FCC.

“No wonder the public is having a hard time distinguishing between news and propaganda,” said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a statement. “Americans have a legal right to know that what appear to be independent news reports are actually bought and paid for by a private corporation.”

After the release of center’s first reportin April, the FCC launched an investigation into VNR usage. Commissioners Adelstein and Michael J. Copps are leading that ongoing investigation, which will also explore the new allegations presented in the latest report.

That report got a much chillier reception from media trade organizations like the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) and the National Association of Broadcast Communicators (NABC), which believe that the FCC should not be regulating the use of VNRs.

“We think it’s extremely dangerous for the government to interfere in editorial decision-making and make rulings on how the material is going to be used in newscasts,” Barbara Cochran, president of RTNDA, told the PEJ. The RTNDA, Cochran pointed out, has voluntary standards listed in its Code of Ethics which call for disclosure of VNRs.

Michael Hill, vice president of NABC, agreed that disclosure is a journalistic decision, not a governmental one.

“It’s not the best practice [to not disclose VNRs],” Hill said to PEJ, “but do I think the government should come in and regulate and fine people for it? No.”

The two sides also disagree over when disclosure of VNRs is necessary. The Center for Media and Democracy believes it is mandated 100% of the time based on an April 2005 FCC Public Notice. That notice states, “whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs, licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audience the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing.”

The RTNDA issued a statement saying that, according to the FCC sponsorship identification rules, VNR disclosure is not required if “stations or their employees have not received consideration” for the videos, and “unless the material concerned politics or a controversial issue of public importance.” The RTNDA said it believes that “consideration” refers to the exchange of money in return for airing a VNR.

What does the FCC have to say about the debate? Commission spokesmanDavid Fisk said only: “We will be reviewing the actual circumstances of the case. We don’t issue advisory opinions.”

But according to one FCC source knowledgeable about that investigation, the term “consideration” might entail more than just money being exchanged and mean anything of value or anything used to reduce the overall cost of news programming.

The source explained that the FCC is not agreeing with either side in the dispute, and added that the issue had not yet been settled.“Is there a need for clarification?” he said. “Yes. We need more than the [April 2005] public notice.”

Now the question is whether the FCC will crack down on something that one side roundly condemns and the other acknowledges isn’t a good idea but shouldn’t be the government’s problem—failing to reveal when a TV station is airing video press releases as news material.