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Surveying the Fake News Scene
We surveyed people about what the disclosure guidelines should be for video news releases (VNRs) and audio news releases (ANRs). (We do define "fake news" more broadly, as not just TV and radio segments provided by outside parties, but also pundit payola and any other media manipulation falsely presented as independent journalism. However, brevity is the soul of good survey response rates!)
Our survey's not-unexpected results can be summed up in one sentence. People want unambiguous disclosures to accompany fake news, and they're willing to take action to make that happen.
Of course, fake news is not a new issue. The first major media exposé of VNRs was a story called "Fake News," published by TV Guide back in 1992. (Consumers Union had issued an in-depth report the previous year, titled, "Are Video News Releases Blurring the Line between News and Advertising?") Accompanying the story was a recommendation from TV Guide's editors 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."
The public relations industry responded by establishing a voluntary "Code of Good Practice for Video News Releases." At the time, the VNR company Medialink's Larry Moskowitz explained the code by saying, "When you see a potential problem, whether real or imagined, you respond. We're taking a page right out of the crisis management textbooks." However, the VNR business returned to normal once the furor died down.
To us, this history highlights the need for informed, sustained pressure to stop fake news. As we work to develop a campaign to achieve just that, we realized that we needed to know more about what our readers -- the people who we hope will join our campaign -- think about the issue.
Before describing the results, here's how we conducted our survey. We posted the survey online and sent a call to participate to our Weekly Spin email list. We placed a survey description and link on our main website, www.prwatch.org,and on SourceWatch, our online encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the public agenda. Some CMD supporters also directed people to our survey from their own websites.
As a public relations industry watchdog, CMD has authored reports on and critiques of fake news. We've urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require continuous on-screen disclosures for VNRs and verbal disclosures preceding and/or following ANRs. We've also distributed this information to virtually the same group of people that we asked to take our survey.
Does that make our survey suspect? Should you dismiss the results as "polling to the converted" or -- as a linguistically adroit colleague put it -- "querying to the choir"?
I think it's fair to say that the people who responded to our survey are probably more interested in and concerned about the state of the media than your random person on the street. But I don't think that nullifies the results.
An interesting and apt comparison is the survey that the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) conducted to determine how their members use VNRs. Based on their "informal survey" of 100 people, RTNDA concluded that "little outside material is used," but when a VNR is aired, "it is attributed." (For a detailed refutation of this claim, see the comment we filed with the FCC.)
I would argue that there's an inherent conflict when members of an association whose (unenforced) ethics code calls for disclosing the source of provided materials are asked whether they label the VNRs that their station airs. However, RTNDA seems not to think so.
In fact, RTNDA used their survey to make the case to the FCC that "RTNDA does not believe that the Commission need take any further action to regulate the use of VNRs by broadcast licensees and cable operators." (It's unclear whether RTNDA survey participants knew that their responses would be used to argue against new regulations of their business. If they did know, that calls the results into even greater question.)
So, CMD's survey results are at least as accurate as RTNDA's. In fact, they're probably more accurate, since we had seven times more people respond. But what do our readers have to say about fake news?
Nearly 90 percent feel disclosures should accompany VNRs and ANRs "in all cases, regardless of who produced or funded the ANRs or VNRs, or what their subject is." Four percent of respondents want disclosures limited to ANRs and VNRs "produced by or for the U.S. government." Less than half of a percent say "no disclosures are needed in any case."
Three-quarters of respondents think radio and television stations should disclose the source of provided materials when "they air any part of an ANR or VNR, no matter how small, including the extra audio or video footage." (Materials sent to newsrooms often include a prepackaged, ready-to-air ANR or VNR and extra audio, called actualities, or extra video, called B-roll.) Ten percent say stations should disclose when "they air any part of a prepackaged ANR or VNR." Seven percent want stations to disclose when "they air any part of an ANR or VNR, without adding independent reporting to the segment."
Specifically with regard to VNRs, 70 percent of respondents want "an on-screen disclosure naming the source of the VNR, in every frame of provided footage." Twelve percent think that "a verbal disclosure before and/or after the VNR is aired" is sufficient. Nine percent prefer "a brief on-screen disclosure naming the source of the VNR."
After weighing in on these questions, dozens of people added comments expanding upon their views. Several wrote that radio and TV newsrooms should avoid all materials provided by outside parties. A few called for an outright ban on ANRs and VNRs. One person who identified as a news professional wrote, "A simple ban on government-funded VNRs is probably not a bad idea given the Bush administration's abuses, but your constant harping about 'fake news' obscures much more important concerns."
Other respondents said they had lost faith in mainstream news media. One wrote that the "best decision of my life" was to stop "watching corporate TV." Another wrote that "news has to be taken with a grain of salt."
Our readers don't just want greater disclosure of fake news -- they're willing to take action to get it. More than 90 percent of respondents said they would sign petitions, one-fifth would meet with their local radio and TV stations, and 19 percent would monitor their local news.
CMD and the media reform group Free Press do have an online petition on government-funded VNRs that we're still gathering signatures on. (If you haven't signed it yet, please go to www.freepress.net/action to do so.)
We also hope to collaborate with media activists and concerned citizens on other actions to stop fake news. First, though, there are some technical, policy and logistical questions that we're working to sort out, together with Free Press. We're also faced with limited resources, so if you would like to see a grassroots "No Fake News!" campaign, please donate to the Center for Media and Democracy.
To the 710 people who responded to our survey, we say thank you for your time and insights. To everyone interested in this issue, we urge you to stay tuned to our website and Weekly Spin email list for updates. Based on our survey and conversations with journalists, scholars, activists and concerned citizens, we think stopping fake news is a winnable fight.