Fake TV News: Recommendations
The Center for Media and Democracy recommends that:
- All provided and/or sponsored video footage be required to carry a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notification of its source.
- All provided and/or sponsored audio material be required to include a verbal notification at its beginning and/or end, disclosing its source.
- Broadcasters be required to place in their public file a monthly report on their use of provided and/or sponsored material.
- U.S. government agencies funding and/or producing video or audio for news broadcast be required to make all such material public and archive it online.
Healthy democracies require the participation of informed citizens. In the United States, more people get their information from television than from any other form of news media.
As this report documents, TV newsrooms routinely present video news releases (VNRs) as though they are their own, independently researched reports. TV stations' consistent failure to disclose VNRs to news audiences means that even the most media savvy people aren't able to evaluate the quality or integrity of TV news.
Currently, news audiences are faced with one of two bad options. One option is to assume that anyand perhaps manyof the TV news reports they view were actually funded, filmed and scripted by undisclosed parties, most likely corporations seeking to boost their profits. The other option is to assume that the widespread and undisclosed use of VNRs does not impact the quality or integrity of TV news.
There is one good potential future option, though. Taking into consideration TV newsrooms' use of VNRs, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could strengthen and actively enforce disclosure requirements. Then and only then, news audiences could reasonably assume that broadcasters will inform them when provided and/or sponsored content is aired, and tell them who the client(s) behind the segment are.
Current Disclosure Requirements
Over the past few years, the debate over disclosure has focused on VNRs from the U.S. federal government.
The nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has ruled repeatedly that any government VNR that does not make its source clear to news audiences constitutes illegal covert propaganda. The Bush administration's Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget have dismissed that standard, instead claiming that government VNRs are permissible, as long as they are "informational." (Measures passed by the U.S. Congress require "a clear notification" for government VNRs, without defining what that means.)
With regard to this unresolved debate, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wrote, "The surprising thing, though, is nobody bothered to mention that there are separate disclosure requirements enforced by the FCC under the Communications Act." As summarized in the FCC's April 2005 Public Notice, these rules say 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."
The FCC issued the Public Notice in response to concerns that "broadcast licensees and cable operators may have aired VNRs with news stories containing material paid for, prepared and/or provided to them by or on behalf of commercial, governmental and other entities without disclosing, at the time of the airing, the source of and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition of such material." In the Notice, the FCC asserts that "listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them."
Current FCC rules mandate disclosure when "any money, service, or other valuable consideration is directly or indirectly paid, or promised to or charged or accepted" by television stations airing VNRs or by radio stations airing audio news releases (ANRs). A more stringent disclosure requirement is applied when the provided broadcast material deals with "political or controversial" issues.
However, Commissioner Adelstein told the U.S. Senate commerce committee in May 2005 that, in practice, FCC enforcement of these rules is limited to responding to complaints. This puts news audiences in a Catch-22 situation. How can they know to file a complaint, when TV stations fail to disclose VNRs and actively disguise the segments as their own reporting?
Taking into consideration the FCC's stated intent and TV newsrooms' actual use of VNRs, as documented in this report, the Center for Media and Democracy recommends that:
- All provided and/or sponsored video footageincluding VNR prepackaged "news" segments, additional soundbites and other B-roll footage, pre-recorded interviews, and satellite media toursbe required to carry a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notification of its source. If the client(s) who funded the video and the producer and/or distributor are different, it is the client(s) who must be disclosed to news audiences. Broadcasters must not be allowed to remove or obscure the notification, under any conditions.
Ideally, the notification (for example, the words "Footage provided by X") would be added by the broadcast PR firm or other entity producing the video. Adding this notification prior to distribution would avoid confusion and assist resource-strapped TV newsrooms. This policy would also eliminate the need for an arbiter to decide which topics are "political" or "controversial."
This policy would also recognize the considerable monetary value that free broadcast material represents to newsrooms. "Because of the high cost of compiling video for a newscast," reasoned the director of George Washington University's journalism program, "stations that accept outside video are in effect accepting an in-kind contribution from that source." The value of that in-kind contribution is difficult to calculate. However, Broadcasting & Cable reported in March 2005 that the chair of Medialink Worldwide, the largest U.S. broadcast PR firm, estimated "the price tag for a three-minute news vignette" as being $15,000 to $25,000. Thus, airing just part of one VNR represents an in-kind contribution worth thousands of dollars to a TV station.
- All provided and/or sponsored audio materialincluding ANR prepackaged "news" segments, additional soundbites, pre-recorded interviews, and radio media toursbe required to include a verbal notification at its beginning and/or end, disclosing its source. As described above, the client(s) who funded the audio must be disclosed to news audiences. Broadcasters should only be allowed to remove pre-recorded notifications if a station anchor repeats the same information, before and/or after airing the provided and/or sponsored audio.
- Broadcasters be required to place in their public file a monthly report on their use of provided and/or sponsored material, listing the days and times all such segments were aired, the title or subject matter of each segment, the entity that provided each segment to the station, the client(s) that funded each segment, and whether the broadcaster received any consideration to air each segment. These monthly reports must remain publicly available for a minimum of ten years.
- U.S. government agencies funding and/or producing video or audio for news broadcast be required to make all such material public and archive it online, for a minimum of ten years. State, county and local governments funding and/or producing video or audio for news broadcast should be encouraged to maintain similar online public archives.
The Professional Opposition
Undisclosed VNRsand controversies around themare not new. In 1991, Consumers Union released a report called, "Are Video News Releases Blurring the Line Between News and Advertising?" In 1992, TV Guide ran a cover story on VNRs titled "Fake News." In an accompanying editorial, TV Guide suggested that "when a TV news organization includes film or tape prepared by an outside source in a broadcast, the label 'VIDEO SUPPLIED BY [COMPANY OR GROUP NAME]' should be visible for as long as the material is on screen."
Why haven't disclosure policies and practices already been strengthened, then? Much of the creditor shame, depending on your viewgoes to public relations executives, who are experts at shaping public perception and policy.
Following the 1992 TV Guide story, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) promoted a voluntary "Code of Good Practice for Video News Releases." The chair of Medialink Worldwide explained at the time, "When you see a potential problem, whether real or imagined, you respond. We're taking a page right out of the crisis management textbooks."
In 2004, after the GAO found some government VNRs to be covert propaganda, PRSA suggested that publicists not use the word "reporting" in VNR sign-offs. In June 2005, PRSA called for "vigorous self-regulation by all those involved at every level in the production and dissemination of prepackaged broadcast materials." (Ironically, PRSA commissioned a poll of corporate executives, Congressional staffers, and members of the general public in mid-2005 which found that seventy to ninety percent of each group surveyed supported government action to ensure disclosure of all VNRs.)
But PR executives aren't the only people trying to avoid stronger disclosure policies. The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), comprised of broadcast, cable and electronic journalists, asserts that there is no disclosure problem. The association took a page from the PRSA playbook, issuing new guidelines for VNR use following the March 2005 New York Times article on government VNRs. In June 2005, the RTNDA told the FCC that an "informal survey" of its members had confirmed their adherence to the association's voluntary disclosure standards. Shortly afterwards, RTNDA president Barbara Cochran compared VNRs to the Loch Ness Monster, telling the Washington Times, "Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it."
Since opposition to meaningful disclosure policies is likely to continue, the following is a list of arguments that PR executives and broadcast associations have already made, or are likely to make, followed by the Center for Media and Democracy's (CMD's) brief rebuttals:
- "The voluntary codes of conduct already in place are sufficient." Of the 98 fake TV news broadcasts that CMD documented, not once did the TV station disclose the client(s) behind the segment. Moreover, newsrooms actively disguised the VNRs they aired as their own reports, adding station-branded graphics and often re-voicing the publicist's narration.
- "TV stations rarely use VNRs." Over ten months, CMD documented 77 different TV stations broadcasting fake news; 69 stations aired VNRs and eight aired satellite media tours with related VNRs. These include 13 TV stations in the ten largest U.S. media markets.
- "TV stations only use VNRs as supplementary footage in original reports." In 31 of the 87 VNR broadcasts that CMD documented, the entire aired "report" was the entire prepackaged VNR. In only seven of 87 cases did the TV station add any independently-gathered footage or information to the VNR-based segment. Only once did the additional material challenge the narrative produced by the broadcast PR firm for the paying client(s).
- "VNRs and other provided and/or sponsored material provide footage that newsrooms would not be able to obtain otherwise." Sometimes this is true; one frequently-cited example is outer space footage from NASA. Such hard-to-obtain footage will still be available if the policies recommended above are implemented; it will simply contain disclosures. In addition, many of the VNRs described in this report were selected for tracking because they seemed more newsworthy (and thus more likely to be aired) than other VNRs. Still, it's hard to categorize them as valuable or irreplaceable additions to news broadcasts.
- "Stronger disclosure policies would restrict newsrooms' editorial independence." Simply requiring disclosure of provided and/or sponsored material to news audiences does nothing to restrict what newsrooms can air. What disclosure does is respect audiences' right to know, a vital principle that current policies and practices ignore.
- "CMD's findings are not representative of how VNRs are actually used." CMD tracked 36 VNRs from three large broadcast PR firms. Although the exact size of the industry is not known, at least 5,000 VNRs are likely to be distributed in the United States each year. Therefore, CMD tracked roughly one percent of the VNRs being offered to TV newsrooms over the ten months of its investigation. While that's a small percentage, the number and range of TV stations implicated by CMD and their utter lack of disclosure make this report highly significant.