Still Not the News: Frequently Asked Questions

Submitted by Diane Farsetta on

The following questions focus on video news release (VNR) disclosure and policy issues. For more basic information on what VNRs are, how VNRs differ from print press releases, and how television stations use VNRs, see "Fake TV News: Frequently Asked Questions" and "Executive Summary."

Why do TV stations air VNRs?
VNRs have become standard TV newsroom fare over the past two decades, in large part because increased economic and profit pressures on TV stations have led to reductions in newsroom staff and budgets. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for stations to fill news programs with their own material. These trends have been documented by academic researchers, Nielsen media surveys, and the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual "State of the News Media" reports. (See the "Staffing and Workload" and the "Local TV: News Investment" sections of the State of the News Media 2006 report, along with "Fake TV News: Introduction.")

What's wrong with TV stations airing VNRs?
VNRs are produced by public relations firms to insert their clients' messages into TV newscasts. As the Center for Media and Democracy's (CMD's) two VNR reports show, this client-driven process results in the production of VNRs with little or no real news value, the incorporation of misleading or wrong information into VNRs, and the exclusion of important, relevant information that challenges or weakens clients' messages. This last point has perhaps the most serious implications for news audiences, as TV stations commonly build an entire news segment from a single VNR—sometimes without even fact checking it.

In short, VNRs are the result of a process that is antithetical to the rigorous, independent and skeptical approach taken by journalists. Of course, TV newsrooms are free to use VNR footage as they see fit, but should—for numerous reasons (see below)—always disclose when they do so.

Why should TV stations disclose when they air VNRs?
There are three main reasons why TV stations should clearly disclose all VNR footage. First, basic journalistic principles demand it. The Radio-Television News Directors Association's (RTNDA's) Code of Ethics directs journalists to "present the news with integrity and decency, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest." RTNDA's code on VNR usage states, "News managers and producers should clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by corporate or other non-editorial sources." As is documented in CMD's two VNR reports, anything less than full disclosure misleads news audiences.

Second, TV stations are given free use of the public airwaves, in exchange for their promise to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity," as mandated by the Communications Act of 1934. The Federal Radio Commission explained what is known as the "public trustee" model of broadcasting by stating: "It is as if people of a community should own a station and turn it over to the best man [sic] in sight with this injunction: 'Manage this station in our interest.'" The covert inclusion of VNRs in TV newscasts clearly works against the public interest, since viewers are denied the information needed to evaluate the claims being presented as news.

Third, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wrote, in its unanimously-issued April 2005 Public Notice on VNRs, that "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."

How should TV stations disclose when they air VNRs?
The FCC has not yet clarified what constitutes a "clear" disclosure of "the nature, source and sponsorship" of VNR footage (see above). RTNDA suggests that, for example, "graphics could denote 'Mercy Hospital video' and the reporter or anchor script could also acknowledge it by stating, 'This operating room video was provided by Mercy Hospital.'"

CMD suggests that "all provided and/or sponsored video footage ... be required to carry a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notification of its source," as is described in "Fake TV News: Recommendations." Continuous labeling ensures that viewers do not miss or misconstrue the disclosure. This report contains two examples where on-screen labels were too ambiguous and/or brief for reasonable viewers to discern the sponsored nature of the segment.

Why don't most TV stations disclose when they air VNRs?
This question can only be fully answered by the TV stations themselves. Many stations cited in the "Fake TV News" report said that mistakes or confusion led to their airing VNRs without disclosure. This is one reason why CMD suggests that continuous, on-screen client notifications be added before VNRs are uploaded to digital news feeds or otherwise distributed to stations. However, the very low rate of VNR disclosure observed by CMD suggests that there are other factors, such as TV newsroom staff not wanting to admit that a "report" was actually funded by and scripted for the very subject of that segment.

Isn't it a TV station's right to decide whether to air a VNR?
Yes. CMD has never called for the censorship or banning of VNRs, just for disclosure. Disclosure does not keep TV stations from airing VNRs—or PR firms from producing VNRs for paying clients. Disclosure simply ensures against the wholesale deception and manipulation of news audiences. In addition, disclosure is more speech, not less, and so can hardly be an abridgment of First Amendment rights. Lastly, as noted above, TV stations are regulated industries benefiting from the free use of the public airwaves.

What is the Federal Communications Commission's role?
The FCC is a U.S. government agency "charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable," according to its website. The Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC, also contains sponsorship identification rules for broadcasters (see below).

What are the FCC regulations that apply to VNRs?
The Communications Act of 1934 (specifically, sections 317 and 507 of the Act) contains sponsorship identification rules for broadcasters. The Act was written before television existed, let alone VNRs, and neither the FCC nor Congress has yet clarified exactly how it applies to VNRs. However, the FCC did state that "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," in its April 2005 Public Notice.

Don't the FCC regulations only apply to "controversial or political" VNRs, or VNRs that TV stations are paid to air?
No. The FCC's April 2005 Public Notice made it perfectly clear that the regulations are in effect "whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs." It also states that "listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems."

While the Communications Act singles out material provided by outside parties that stations are paid to broadcast, and provided material dealing with controversial or political issues, that does not mean that disclosure is only required of VNRs meeting one of those three conditions. There is, however, a "greater obligation of disclosure" for "political material and program matter dealing with controversial issues," again according to the FCC's Public Notice.

The Public Notice also states that "a duty of disclosure" is placed on "any person involved in the production or preparation of broadcast matter" who receives or provides "money, service, or other valuable consideration." This obviously covers PR firms paid to produce VNRs. The PR firms' disclosure must be relayed to TV stations, who then "must air the [disclosure] announcement, as if the consideration was paid to the station for airing the broadcast matter, even if the station itself received no such consideration."

How did the FCC react to the Center for Media and Democracy's "Fake TV News" report?
After an initial review of the report, the FCC launched an official investigation, sending letters of inquiry to the owners of all 77 TV stations cited in CMD's report. The letters were sent in mid-August 2006, and requested video footage of the segments in question, along with "copies of any agreements between the stations and the companies, government agencies or public relations firms involved in supplying the video news releases," reported Bloomberg News. The stations were given 60 days to respond. As the FCC does not comment on ongoing investigations, no other information has yet been made public.

How did other groups react to CMD's "Fake TV News" report?
Hours after the "Fake TV News" report was released, RTNDA issued a statement "strongly urg[ing] station management to review and strengthen their policies requiring complete disclosure of any outside material used in news programming." RTNDA president Barbara Cochran later wrote that "the similarities between newscast stories and VNRs were embarrassing." The Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee co-chair said that CMD "deserves credit and thanks for once again bringing this deplorable practice to public attention." The report was widely covered, including by the New York Times, CNN, NPR, PBS and Pacifica News.

More recently, RTNDA decided to attack the "Fake TV News" report. In October 2006, RTNDA filed an appeal asking the FCC to halt its VNR investigation. (That does not appear likely to happen; an FCC official told Reuters the agency is "duty-bound to look into complaints.") The filing, prepared for RTNDA by a law and lobby firm, alleged that CMD's report was "biased and inaccurate" and "rife with unsubstantiated accusations and misleading half-truths." CMD fully rebutted RTNDA's claims. Nonetheless, RTNDA has yet to retract or correct its critique of the report, and broadcast PR firms continue to refer to the critique, as though it had merit.

Does anyone oppose VNR disclosure requirements?
As might be expected, the broadcast PR firms that produce VNRs are promoting industry self-regulation and questioning the need for any FCC investigation or action. In October 2006, 15 firms announced the formation of a new VNR industry consortium called the National Association of Broadcast Communicators (NABC), which has issued joint statements with the Public Relations Society of America. The RTNDA, as noted above, also objects to the FCC investigation. The timing and similarity of the RTNDA and NABC filings suggest that the groups are coordinating their advocacy on the issue, as do statements by NABC members and previous joint appearances by RTNDA and PR executives, to oppose legislation seeking disclosure of government VNRs.

There is at least one other group that has cautioned against FCC involvement. The Society of Professional Journalists urged "broadcast companies to set their own house in order by using extreme caution and full disclosure when airing VNRs." However, this position fails to acknowledge TV stations' utter failure to police themselves on this matter, even though undisclosed VNRs have repeatedly emerged as a contentious issue since at least the early 1990s. (See "The Professional Opposition" section of "Fake TV News: Recommendations.")