Recently a new lobby group, the [[National Association of Broadcast Communicators]] (NABC), was launched to try to convince federal regulators, media policy wonks and the general public that they shouldn't worry about television stations airing undisclosed [[video news releases]] (VNRs). The NABC and their allies at the [[Public Relations Society of America]] and the [[Radio-Television News Directors Association]] went even further, wrapping the covert broadcast of corporate- and government-funded [[fake news]] segments in the U.S. flag.
Ever the optimist, I'm looking forward to the day when these groups have considered the issue more closely and carefully, and have come to appreciate the important role that news -- especially that broadcast over the public airwaves to a mass audience -- plays in a democracy. The following is the statement that NABC might well issue, on that sunny day. (Satire alert!)
VNR Producers Apologize for News Audiences Being Misled
We are sorry. Very sorry. For many years we have been very well paid to produce thousands of video news releases (VNRs) that have been circulated among and promoted to television stations far and wide -- many within the United States, others around the world. Some of these VNRs featured our PR staff posing on screen as "reporters." For every VNR, we assumed the role of reporters, with a twist -- only "reporting" what complemented our clients' marketing, PR or policy agendas.
We knew all along that television stations aired many of these VNRs in their entirety, without disclosing to viewers that the segment actually came from a PR firm. Sometimes TV stations' local reporters re-voiced the script we provided. Sometimes stations spliced and diced our video, but they largely followed the sponsored storyline that they had been fed. However, there were times when our plans backfired and stations used our VNRs to criticize our clients. (You really don't want to know how we explained that away!)
And you, the television viewers, were none the wiser that you were watching fake news.
Decades ago, when a few companies first started producing VNRs, there was little discussion about the ethical implications of their use. We saw VNRs as just one of many PR tricks to help our clients. However, in the last few years there has been significant public debate over the ethics of what has become a substantial sector of the PR industry. There have been petitions, reports, numerous scathing news stories, legislative amendments, and now an investigation by the U.S. [[Federal Communications Commission]].
Under such conditions, the normal response of industry is to hunker down and try and defend the indefensible. We have decided to be smarter and better than that.
We decided that this crisis provides an opportunity for us to reflect on what we have done and where we go from here. We now realize that the wholesale deception of TV news viewers by undisclosed VNRs was wrong and constituted a grievous breach of ethical standards, not to mention TV stations' license agreements. We would like to take this opportunity to offer our heartfelt thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press, for raising the issue publicly and helping us realize the error of our ways.
We recognize that this apology is just the first small step in rectifying the damage we have done to the quality and credibility of television news programming. We have also decided to spell out our mistakes, in the hopes that our current and future colleagues will learn from them.
Where We Went Wrong
The more VNRs we produced, the more justifications we came up with as to why their unattributed use by television stations was defensible -- even admirable. We now realize that we ended up believing our own propaganda. Below are the arguments we previously used, and why we now believe they are wrong.
- "VNRs are the television equivalent of a press release":
It's very easy to make this comparison -- even the terms are similar! But we sure don't buy newspapers just to read the latest collection of press releases. We also know that good newspapers and journalists clearly identify when they quote from prepared statements. If disclosure is good enough for print journalists, then it is good enough for us. Moreover, we know how we fussed over VNR imagery and rehearsed soundbites, to come up with something more persuasive and far-reaching than any print press release could dream of being!
- "VNRs are distributed with full source attribution to television newscasters":
This is largely true, but the implication that this is sufficient is a fudge, and we know it. We know that television networks and stations are under incredible pressure to keep cutting costs and delivering ever fatter returns. Many TV newsrooms are understaffed but still expected to fill news programs with something, indeed with anything. (Heck, some of our VNRs even make us wince!)
Sometimes the lack of VNR disclosure is due to newsroom confusion; often it's due to newsroom embarrassment. And even the stations and networks that have a policy requiring VNR disclosure don't necessarily know what's going out over the airwaves. We now believe that the best -- and likely the only -- way to ensure disclosure is to label all VNRs with an on-screen disclosure of their source. And we're happy to start doing so, today.
- "Broadcasters have the obligation to disclose the sources of outside materials to the public in the best way they see fit":
This was one of our best "wiggle room" lines. Implicit in it was a "nod nod, wink wink" arrangement where we would tell TV stations who paid for the VNRs and hope the stations wouldn't (and they usually didn't) provide disclosure to news audiences. We now realize that informing viewers is the paramount consideration. News audiences deserve to know "who seeks to influence them," as the FCC stated. And full disclosure is necessary for viewers to evaluate the information and arguments being presented as news.
- "VNRs cover a wide variety of useful and informative topics such as new products or services, health and medical news, and special events":
This was one of our, shall we say, more creative lines. We know that there is a big difference between news and advertising. When we buy equipment for our fancy studios, we don't believe the ads -- we look for independent reviews and information. And we know better than anyone that many VNRs are just peddling second-rate or otherwise unremarkable products. Health-themed VNRs aren't about informing the public, but about increasing sales of particular drugs and products. We realize that, and we also realize that one-sided "news" about prescription drugs could have serious consequences. That's just one reason for our recent change of heart.
- "VNRs are an important and integral part of the dissemination of information to the public":
They're not, really. They're ads aired during news programs rather than during commercial breaks. We can't remember who it was that originally came up with this line, but the argument did seem to help journalists and news producers feel better about using VNRs. That helped to keep our clients happy and us well paid.
You see, news producers on tight budgets quickly become addicted to free video. Once addicted, they have little incentive to disclose their use of VNRs. If viewers saw that large portions of newscasts were really VNRs, they would switch channels until they found real news -- or read a newspaper, a good book, go online, or go outside and play with the kids. Or, worst of all, complain to the TV station management and the FCC.
- "Requiring mandatory disclosure would breach the First Amendment rights of the broadcast networks":
We thought this argument would help us claim the moral high ground. It was always a bit ludicrous -- after all, disclosure is more speech, not less, and TV stations are regulated industries -- but we kept using it because so many people simply accepted it at face value. Sorry about that. We now admit that the FCC's sponsorship identification rules simply stop viewers from being deceived. It is a bit hard to imagine Tom Paine, James Madison or Benjamin Franklin supporting a First Amendment "right" of covert advertising or governemnt propaganda. In hindsight, we guess we got a bit carried away...
- "VNR disclosure would destroy the fake news industry":
This is an argument we never used, because it would seem too self-centred, greedy and uncaring about the important role that news plays in a democracy. Full, universal disclosure may curtail VNR usage, which would hit VNR companies and their shareholders in their bank accounts. But many of our staff would prefer to produce real news and report on important information that the public doesn't learn about because TV stations have become addicted to fast, cheap, free or -- as is the case with VNRs -- fake news. If only the networks invested more in real news, more of our staff could make that transition into the newsroom.
In closing, the FCC's defending the rights of viewers to know what's a VNR and what's real news really did us all a favor. Having come clean with this statement, we feel much better about ourselves.
As people who know the tricks of the trade, some of us have decided to work to ensure that news viewers are never again deceived by unattributed VNRs. Others are going back to producing ads or clearly labeled VNRs. Others are encouraging greater investment in real news. We aren't quite sure why we didn't come up with such a sensible plan ourselves years ago, but that's life.
Thank you for reading our statment. We hope you can forgive us for our sordid past, and work with us to realize a better -- and more genuine -- future for news.
The National Association of Broadcast Communicators
P.S. So far we have only had time to thrash out our thinking on VNRs. There's lots of other fake news products we do, like [[audio news releases]] and [[Satellite Media Tours]]. But we'll address those in the not too distant future.