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Citizens Fight for Real News

April 20th, 2005 · No Comments

In my last column, I discussed the problem of fake news on our television sets. No, I’m not talking about Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central. That show is intentionally fake news, and is perhaps the most honest news program on television because it unveils the comically phony workings of news and politics.

The truly fake news comes in the form of VNRs – video news releases – that are created by special interest groups like corporations and politicized government agencies and then played on TV news. For example, as the New York Times reported in March, more than 20 federal agencies have used taxpayer money to produce hundreds of VNRs promoting Bush administration policies. Such VNRs are most dangerous when they come to our television screens without local television editorial oversight or attribution.

Since last month, nearly 40,000 Americans signed petitions sponsored by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Free Press to stop our own federal government from illegally spending millions of our tax dollars in attempts to sway public opinion with propaganda disguised as news.

What followed this torrent of citizen action is a story that we don’t hear often enough: swift, responsible government action.

The Federal Communications Commission responded on April 13 with a public notice that stated “whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs, licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing.” As FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein noted at the time, “People have a legal right to know the real source when they see something on TV that is disguised as ‘news’.”

The next day, the Senate approved 98-0 an amendment by Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia that prohibits federal agencies from producing prepackaged news stories (VNRs) without clear notification in the text or audio that it was prepared or funded by a federal agency.

But, the problems of VNRs still vex local television news directors. Since the late 1980s, television stations across the county have been constantly bombarded with VNRs, first via the mail (on videotape), and now more commonly via satellite or Internet feeds.

Bob Smith, news director of KWWL in Waterloo, says that his station frequently receives VNRs from pharmaceutical companies and organizations like the AARP. But, his rule on VNRs, particularly after seeing other stations in the country caught using them without attribution, is “Don’t use them.” Smith explains that “You have to be ready to ask Where is this video coming from. People automatically assume we have done that and it gives (the video footage) an air of credibility.”

There are a few exceptions for using VNRs, according to Becky Lutgen-Gardner, news director at KCRG in Cedar Rapids. For example, when it comes to getting video images of medical procedures or interiors of corporate offices for a story, television videographers often can’t get access.

In those cases, Lutgen-Gardner argues, it’s permissible to use VNR footage, but only with text on the screen identifying the source. Both KCRG and KWWL have used video from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for stories, and routinely identify such shots.

More tricky for local news directors is when they get video from other news services, such as CNN Newsource, NBC News Channel, or ABC. These TV news services supply the video for national and international news stories that air on local TV. The problem is that these services are also sometimes paid to distribute VNRs in their news feeds as well. In these cases, the local stations have to put their faith in the integrity of the national news organizations, and hope that they have identified all VNR material.

“If you’re going to take that video, you’re trusting that they went out and generated that video,” Lutgen-Gardner says. But, “unless they flag it, I wouldn’t know.” KWWL’s Smith acknowledges the same problem: “Sometimes that stuff sneaks through.”

Tags: Journalism Ethics · Public Relations

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