Diane Farsetta, Center for Media and Democracy
October 11, 2007
Despite mounting pressure from the public and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), television stations continue to air sponsored public relations videos without disclosure. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) identified three recent instances where a single television station aired video news releases (VNRs), which are sponsored segments designed to mimic genuine news reports.
Over the past six weeks, WGTU-TV 29 (Traverse City, Mich.) has aired:
- An entire, pre-packaged VNR funded by the financial company Capital One, without disclosure;
- An entire, pre-packaged VNR funded by the communications company Harris Corporation, without disclosure; and
- An entire, pre-packaged VNR funded by the farm equipment company John Deere. In this case, the original VNR contained brief, on-screen and verbal notifications of the sponsor. By playing the entire VNR, WGTU provided "passive disclosure" to its viewers.
The above links contain more information on each VNR broadcast, including videos of the original VNR and the WGTU newscast that incorporated it.
Video news releases are public relations videos designed to look like television news stories. The vast majority of VNRs are funded by corporate clients to promote the company's products or public image. (See "Fake TV News: Introduction" and "Fake TV News: Corporations" for more information.)
CMD has authored two in-depth multimedia reports on television newsrooms' use of VNRs: "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," released in April 2006, and "Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs," released in November 2006. Together, these reports identified 111 TV stations across the country that had aired VNRs or related public relations videos. Of the 140 VNR broadcasts documented, only two offered clear disclosure to viewers.
Following the release of CMD's first report, the broadcast public relations firm D S Simon Productions began adding brief, on-screen and verbal sponsor notifications at the end of its pre-packaged VNRs. CMD's second report found that these notifications, in and of themselves, do not ensure viewers' right to know. Stations airing these VNRs removed the notifications and still failed to provide disclosure to viewers 80 percent of the time. (See "Still Not the News.")
This mini-report is meant as a brief update to CMD's more comprehensive reporting on the VNR issue.
According to the Federal Communications Commission's April 2005 Public Notice, TV stations airing VNRs "must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material." (See "Fake TV News: Recommendations.")
In August 2006, the FCC launched an investigation of the 77 stations named in CMD's first report. The agency sent letters of inquiry to the owners of these stations, asking for evidence regarding their undisclosed use of VNRs.
In April 2007, the FCC sent letters of inquiry to the owner of at least one of the stations named in CMD's second report. In September 2007, the FCC announced five fines against Comcast Corporation, for its cable channel CN8 having aired multiple VNRs without disclosure. These VNR broadcasts were documented in CMD's second report.
While the status of the FCC's investigation into the other 110 broadcast and cable stations is unclear, the agency's recent statements suggest more fines are forthcoming. The more recent "Notice of Apparent Liability" against Comcast states that "the VNR itself was the 'valuable consideration' provided to CN8." This language indicates that the FCC has rejected arguments that disclosure is only required when stations are paid to air VNRs, or when VNRs deal with controversial or political issues.
Along with the media reform group Free Press, CMD has urged the FCC to strengthen and clarify VNR requirements, recommending that:
- All broadcast of provided and/or sponsored video footage be required to carry a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notification of its source;
- All broadcast of provided and/or sponsored audio material be required to include a verbal notification at its beginning and/or end, disclosing its source; and
- Broadcasters be required to place in their public file a monthly report on their use of provided and/or sponsored material.
These recommendations have been endorsed in full by the Writers Guild of America, East, which counts many television news writers among its members.
More information can be found at the following links.
VNR broadcasts by WGTU-TV 29
- Capital One VNR, August 24, 2007;
- Harris Corporation VNR, September 18, 2007; and
- John Deere VNR, September 21, 2007.
Center for Media and Democracy VNR reports
- "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," April 6, 2006; and
- "Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs," November 14, 2006.
Formal complaints, filed with the FCC by CMD and Free Press
- First complaint, April 6, 2006;
- Second complaint, November 14, 2006; and
- Third complaint, October 11, 2007.
FCC documents regarding VNR disclosure