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Rebuttal of the Radio-Television News Directors Association's "Fake TV News" Report Critique
On October 5, 2006, the Wiley Rein & Fielding law and lobby firm filed an appeal with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), on behalf of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), asking the agency to halt its investigation of 77 television stations found to have aired video news releases (VNRs) without disclosure. In an attachment to the filing, RTNDA presents its critique (PDF) of the Center for Media and Democracy's (CMD's) report, "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed." The findings of CMD's April 2006 report led to the ongoing FCC investigation.
CMD stands by its report, in its entirety. CMD has carefully reviewed the RTNDA critique and is pleased to find that, aside from three minor typographical errors, RTNDA was unable to identify any actual misrepresentations of fact in the report.
However, in order to create the impression that CMD's report is flawed, RTNDA has misrepresented and distorted the substance of the report in its critique. CMD corrects those misrepresentations below.
RTNDA claim: "Neither CMD nor the authors of the report offer any concrete information detailing how they actually went about selecting VNRs and tracking their usage."
CMD response: In the report's Executive Summary, CMD describes its "ten-month study of selected VNRs [video news releases] and their use by television stations, tracking 36 VNRs issued by three broadcast PR firms." CMD also named the three broadcast PR firms: MultiVu, Medialink Worldwide and D S Simon Productions. CMD carefully compared each VNR to the TV news segments identified, and thoroughly detailed how each VNR was used, including whether TV stations edited or re-voiced the segment, and whether stations added independently gathered video. CMD reported on all VNR broadcasts it was able to identify, including the two (of 98 total) instances where there was partial disclosure, and the one VNR used in a negative context. CMD did not suppress any data or skew its results. To prevent future research efforts from being compromised, CMD chose not to divulge the methods used to identify which TV stations aired a given VNR. Due to the nationwide scope of the study, CMD's report probably does not identify every TV newscast that incorporated one or more of the 36 VNRs tracked. So the report, if anything, under-represents the problem. (For more on how VNRs were selected, see point #4, below.)
RTNDA claim: "Different parts of the report assert different findings," giving the example of "77 television stations that aired these VNRs or related satellite media tours (SMTs) in 98 separate instances" and "87 VNR broadcasts."
CMD response: As the report explains numerous times, CMD documented 87 VNR broadcasts and 11 SMT broadcasts, for a total of 98 examples of VNR and SMT usage.
RTNDA claim: "When considered in the context of the more than 1 million local news stories likely to air nationally over any given 10-month period, CMD's claim that it uncovered 98 stories utilizing VNR material without disclosure is hardly relevant."
CMD response: The very first line of the report states that the 36 VNRs tracked by CMD represent "a small sample of the thousands produced each year." CMD concludes that the number of TV stations implicated – 69 for airing VNRs, plus eight for airing SMTs – is a significant number, given that CMD tracked less than one percent of the of the VNRs streaming into TV newsrooms, from June 2005 to March 2006. Taken together, "these 77 stations reach more than half of the U.S. population." Also relevant is the fact that in more than one-third of the VNR broadcasts documented (31 of 87), TV stations aired the entire pre-packaged VNR without disclosure. Lastly, given the widespread and undisclosed nature of VNR usage, a comprehensive analysis is beyond CMD's resources and certainly beyond the resources of TV viewers who deserve to know who seeks to influence them, via news programming.
RTNDA claim: "It appears that CMD inherently recognized the public interest value of many of the stories aired and chose to track them precisely because they were more likely to be utilized by broadcast stations, in essence skewing the results towards its desired outcome."
CMD response: The issue at hand is not VNR content, but VNR disclosure. However, to explain CMD's approach, the purpose of the study was not to see if TV stations were airing VNRs, but how they use them. As a result, CMD excluded some VNRs that were heavily promotional, presented especially weak news hooks, or were otherwise unlikely to be adopted by TV stations. This does not mean that CMD found other VNRs to have a "public interest value." When CMD did track blatantly promotional segments, such as the General Mills "National Pancake Week" or the Victoria's Secret "Beauty Rush Lip Gloss" VNR, CMD did identify TV stations that had aired them. If anything, CMD's tendency to avoid the most egregious VNRs resulted in a report that is less damning than it might have been.
RTNDA claim: "Despite the fact that video proof seemingly would be essential to support CMD's allegations, CMD fails to provide video clips for over half (56 out of 98, or 57 percent) of the broadcasts it indicts. RTNDA members have reported several instances where their stations did not utilize VNR material as alleged in the CMD report."
CMD response: Two CMD researchers independently reviewed the 98 examples of VNR or SMT broadcasts, comparing each to the original VNR and detailing when and how TV stations used the PR materials. Technical limitations did keep CMD from posting the video of every example on its website, but each is fully described in the report. In the few cases where TV stations have contacted CMD to contest their inclusion in the report, simply clarifying the timing and nature of the segment has resulted in stations confirming their use of a VNR or SMT. Every RTNDA claim of TV stations "not utiliz[ing] VNR material as alleged" is debunked in this document. CMD is certain that the ongoing FCC investigation will confirm each example cited in its report.
RTNDA claim: "The report does not discuss numerous examples contained in the report where stations have edited VNR material to remove corporate overtones and CMD does not appear to have made any effort to contact stations to ascertain what steps may have been taken internally by stations to ensure that the segments aired were newsworthy and credible."
CMD response: To the contrary, CMD's report describes in detail when and how TV stations edited VNRs. For example, in its description of the Matrixx Initiatives VNR promoting the flu remedy Zicam, CMD notes that WVVA-6 (Bluefield, WV) "removed nearly every reference to Zicam." However, while the station "tried hard not to do the work of Matrixx Initiatives," the report states, "they didn't do their own work either. The entire health story was still built from a corporate-funded news package that revolved around a questionable medical survey and still contained a few references to Zicam. And WVVA-6 viewers believed they were watching genuine journalism." (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr19)
Other examples of how CMD accurately detailed stations' VNR usage are described below (points 7-10). Lastly, CMD contacted TV stations by phone and/or fax prior to the report's release, to inquire about their policies on VNR and SMT usage and disclosure. As noted above, the real issue is not VNR content, but VNR disclosure.
RTNDA claim: "CMD singles out WFAA-8 (Dallas, TX)," when "the station simply used some of the VNR footage as background for a short report criticizing the product that the VNR was designed to promote. Similarly, station KYW-3 (Philadelphia, PA) utilized the VNR material in a story questioning the effectiveness of chondroitin sulfate."
CMD response: That these two TV stations used a VNR to question the product being promoted is clearly explained in CMD's report, which states that KYW-3 "took a promotional news release on chondroitin sulfate – a nutritional supplement – and turned it into a 'thumbs-down' news report on chondroitin's ineffectiveness in treating joint pain from osteoarthritis. … Like KYW-3, [WFAA-8] chose to use the VNR in a negative context. … The newscast merely ran silent video of the VNR in the foreground while a station reporter read from her own narrative. Neither WFAA-8 or KYW-3 identified [PR firm] D S Simon and [client] Bioibérica as the source of the video, a violation of the Radio-Television News Directors Association's ethical guidelines." (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr31)
RTNDA claim: "CMD fails to mention … that WCTI edited out all of the product plugs for Sallie Mae's services included in the original VNR."
CMD response: CMD's report notes that the original VNR – and the segment aired by WCTI-12 (New Bern, NC) – "subtly highlights" Sallie Mae. The report states, "While the video news release (VNR) is essentially a 'helpful tips' piece about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the story features multiple soundbites from Sallie Mae's Tom Joyce." Joyce says, among other things that "Paying for your child's dream education is much easier than you think," and refers to student loans as "free or cheap money." WCTI-12 aired the Sallie Mae spokesperson's soundbites – the first in its entirety, the second edited. The station did not direct viewers to the Sallie Mae website, but the report does not claim that it did. In fact, CMD posted video of the VNR and WCTI-12 segment on its website. WCTI-12 did not disclose the VNR to its viewers. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr11)
RTNDA claim: "CMD concedes that WKRN edited out the corporate overtones that Jackson Hewitt included in the VNR."
CMD response: As described above (points 6-8) and throughout its report, CMD accurately represents whether and how TV stations edited VNRs. In the case of the Jackson Hewitt VNR aired by WKRN-2 (Nashville, TN), the report states, "Unfortunately for Jackson Hewitt, WKRN-2 trimmed over a minute of content from the original VNR, replacing [publicist Kate] Brookes' narrative audio with the voice of [station anchor] Anne Holt and removing every mention of Jackson Hewitt. … While it's nice to see that WKRN-2 stripped the ulterior sales angle out of the corporate news release, they still failed to inform viewers that every piece of their brief report came from [PR firm] Medialink [Worldwide] and Jackson Hewitt." (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr34) Interestingly, WKRN-2 general manager Mike Sechrist has written that their use of the Jackson Hewitt VNR "shouldn't have happened but did."
RTNDA claim: "WSYX-6 (Columbus, OH), KNTV-13 [sic] (Las Vegas, NV), KTVI-2 (St. Louis, MO) and WVVA-6 (Bluefield, WV) cut all or the overwhelming majority of product references from the segments using VNR footage, yet CMD chose not to acknowledge efforts by these news operations to produce independent, informational stories."
CMD response: As illustrated repeatedly above, CMD accurately represented whether and to what extent TV stations edited VNRs. The WVVA-6 example is described in point 6, above.
WSYX-6, as CMD's report states, "blended a full minute of the [Panasonic, Namco and Techno Source] VNR into [a] regular consumer segment." The WSYX-6 segment warned viewers away from two products that "are direct commercial competitors of two of the three VNR sponsors." (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr6)
KTNV-13 misrepresented Medialink publicist Kate Brookes as a reporter, airing a pro-ethanol VNR funded by Siemens AG, which CMD's report notes "supplies process automation systems to two-thirds of the ethanol plants in the United States." KTNV-13 only made minor edits to the Siemens VNR. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr16)
CMD documented KTVI-2 airing two VNRs, one from Trend Micro Software and the other from Masterfoods and 1-800-Flowers. It's unclear which one RTNDA is referring to in its critique, but in both cases KTVI-2 aired the entire pre-packaged VNR, hardly making the station an exemplar of "independent, informational" news. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr4 and www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr2)
None of the stations named by RTNDA, above, added independently gathered video footage to the VNR they aired and none abided by RTNDA's own ethics code, which calls for clear disclosure and labeling of "all material provided by corporate or other non-editorial sources."
RTNDA claim: "CMD lambastes nine broadcasters for airing portions of a VNR produced by the American Dental Association. Even in its unedited form, this VNR has no plugs for any product and does nothing more than provide information about two new dental techniques."
CMD response: CMD's report notes that KTXL-40 (Sacramento, CA) aired a segment "built almost exclusively" from the VNR; that WRTV-6 (Indianapolis, IN), WHAS-11 (Louisville, KY) and KMAX-31 (Sacramento, CA) "masked the VNR as their own journalism, garnishing the video with custom-branded graphics and enlisting a station reporter to replace the narrative voiceover" of the publicist; and that five other stations appear to have aired a 90-second segment edited and distributed by the FOX News Network that pulled "79 seconds … straight from the original VNR." No stations disclosed the VNR. The American Dental Association has no products to promote, but sought to associate itself and its members with what its VNR represents as cutting-edge technologies. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr1)
RTNDA claim: "Stations utilizing [a VNR edited by syndicated 'CyberGuy' Kurt Knutsson] appear to have done so without knowing that portions of the story came from a third-party source. Nonetheless, these stations are maligned for misleading their viewers."
CMD response: CMD's report notes, "The VNR was picked up by Kurt Knutsson, a KTLA-5 (Los Angeles, CA) technology reporter whose 'CyberGuy' segments are syndicated through the Tribune Broadcasting Network on newscasts in over 150 markets. .. Although he kept in every mention of [the software product being promoted,] PC-Cilin, Knutsson failed to inform viewers that his entire story was provided by a broadcast PR firm and funded by the makers of the software being featured." CMD is advocating for continuous, on-screen disclosure of VNRs, added by broadcast PR firms, precisely to ensure that TV newsrooms are aware of the nature of video provided them. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr4)
RTNDA claim: "CMD's report also contains at least four instances in which stations did disclose the source of video to their viewers."
CMD response: CMD reported two of the four examples RTNDA's critique mentions as partial disclosures, since the TV stations did not name who funded the VNR. (See point 14 for an explanation of the other two cases RTNDA claims constituted disclosure.)
CMD's report quotes a WLTX-19 (Columbia, SC) anchor as saying, "In the interest of full disclosure, we want to mention that this interview with Robin [Raskin] was provided by vendors at the consumer trade show." Yet the station did not name the four companies that funded the segment – Nokia, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Swiffer – which are also the manufacturers of the four products promoted in the interview. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr14)
When it aired a DaimlerChrysler VNR, WHSV-3 (Harrisonburg, VA) included a "four-second overlay" revealing "that the story was supplied by D S Simon Productions," CMD's report states. "But despite the rare and commendable display of honesty from WHSV-3, the station still failed to divulge DaimlerChrysler as the financial sponsor of the report, an important distinction considering that the average viewer has no idea that D S Simon Productions is a broadcast PR firm." (Full description at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr28)
RTNDA claim: "In the case of WBFS-33 (Miami, FL) and WHP-21 (Harrisburg, PA), CMD completely ignores station disclosures. … At the conclusion of the piece the [WBFS] anchor states, 'that study [sic] [the subject of the aired piece] was provided by a management consulting firm.' … [WHP's] anchor specifically identif[ied] [Jared] Fogle as Subway's spokesperson before the interview, but Fogle was also identified on screen as a Subway spokesperson."
CMD response: The VNR aired by WBFS-33 was paid for by Towers Perrin, and describes a workplace survey carried out by Towers Perrin. The station aired the complete, pre-packaged VNR. At the end of the segment, the WBFS-33 anchor says, "That survey, by the way, was conducted by a management consulting firm" (emphasis added). She is clearly referring to the survey described in the VNR, not the VNR itself. There was no reasonable way for WBFS-33 viewers to discern that the entire segment was provided by a PR firm, on behalf of Towers Perrin. (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr36)
As CMD's report noted, the WHP-21 interview with Fogle and Audrey Cross "mixed in footage from the [Subway] VNR," which also featured Fogle and Cross. WHP-21 did identify Jared Fogle as a Subway spokesperson. However, that identification hardly constitutes disclosure that the interview was arranged by and scripted for Subway, which also likely footed the satellite bill for the remote interview. In addition, the WHP-21 anchor ended the segment with her own Subway promotion, telling viewers, "If you'd like to receive those motivational telephone recordings from Jared throughout the entire month of January, log onto subwayfreshresolutions.com. I think I might do that." (Full description and video at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr15)
RTNDA claim: "The VNR sample CMD selected was not representative of the VNR population distributed to newsrooms. Even assuming that the incidents it cites were instances in which disclosures were appropriate and not made, they constitute a miniscule percentage of the local news stories typically broadcast over the given period."
CMD response: As detailed in point 3, above, CMD clearly and accurately represented its results as less than one percent of the total number of VNRs made available to newsrooms over the course of its study. Whether CMD's sample is representative cannot be determined until broadcast PR firms and/or TV newsrooms provide information on a much broader sample of VNRs.
RTNDA claim: "We found more than 20 instances where stations did make appropriate disclosures, where stations used VNR material in stories criticizing the companies or products behind the VNRs, where stations edited out corporate overtones, or where it was obvious to viewers that spokespeople were representing particular interests."
CMD response: These RTNDA claims are debunked above, in points 6 through 14.