Fake TV News: Introduction

Submitted by Diane Farsetta on

The public expects, rightly, that "news" is information that has been gathered and verified by a journalist acting as a fair observer. A fair observer may have opinions or a point of view, but he or she avoids—or at least fully discloses—any potential, perceived or real conflict of interest.

"Fake news" occurs when public relations practitioners adopt the practices and/or appearance of journalists in order to insert marketing or other persuasive messages into news media. While fake news is obviously bad news, it's very good PR. For example, praise for Brand X has much more credibility when it's relayed by a seemingly-independent reporter or commentator in a news setting, rather than an actor in a commercial.

The dominant form of "fake TV news" is the video news release (VNR). VNRs are pre-packaged "news" segments and additional footage created by broadcast PR firms, or by publicists within corporations or government agencies. A VNR presents a client's message, using a format and tone that mimic actual TV news. Nothing in the material for broadcast identifies the PR firm—or, more importantly, the paying client or clients—behind the VNR.

VNRs are just one of many deceptive PR techniques. Yet, they represent a particular and substantial threat to the modern information environment. A closer examination of the broadcast PR industry and a major reason for its influence—the downsizing of television newsrooms—illustrates the nature of this threat. However, U.S. policy regarding VNRs is limited and is neither actively enforced nor informed by current practices. (Policy issues are detailed in the "Recommendations" section of this report.)

News for Sale

While VNRs have existed for decades, recent reports indicate the pervasive nature of corporate and government campaigns to manipulate news media in other ways. Contracts, payments, grants, goods and services have been offered to pundits, columnists and media outlets, to ensure favorable coverage.

The Bush administration has given government contracts or grants to at least three conservative pundits; none disclosed the payments to their audiences. USA Today's Greg Toppo outed the most infamous "payola pundit," Armstrong Williams, in January 2005. Working under the auspices of the public relations firm Ketchum, Williams received a $240,000 contract to promote policies for the U.S. Department of Education.

Investigations of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff uncovered two columnists associated with think tanks who had secretly been paid to write favorably about Abramoff's clients. Doug Bandow's and Peter Ferrara's columns "provided a seemingly independent validation of the arguments the Abramoff team were using to try to sway Congressional action," noted BusinessWeek reporter Eamon Javers in December 2005. Ferrara's boss said, "I have a sense that there are a lot of people at think tanks who have similar arrangements."

As he was writing his 2003 book BioEvolution, columnist Michael Fumento received an undisclosed $60,000 grant from Monsanto, "a frequent subject of praise in Fumento's opinion columns," as well as the book, reported Javers in January 2006. FOX News commentator Steven Milloy received payments from Philip Morris as recently as 2001, even as his FOX columns dismissed the dangers of secondhand smoke, revealed Paul D. Thacker in The New Republic.

The Los Angeles television station KTLA-5 promised "favorable coverage" to companies, for such undisclosed perks as a free stay in a luxury hotel and spa for three anchors, and "a customized dining-room makeover worth more than $10,000" for one anchor, California newspapers reported in early 2006. (KTLA-5 is one of 77 stations that this report documents airing fake news.) The previous year, the San Francisco-based project "Grade the News" revealed that two area papers were rewarding advertisers and soliciting new ad accounts with favorable restaurant reviews.

Be the Media

Recent examples of interested parties paying to produce and place their own "news" in seemingly-independent outlets also abound.

The Pentagon first distanced itself from, and then quietly gave its assent to, a covert propaganda program where the PR firm Lincoln Group paid Iraqi newspapers to run stories written by U.S. information operations troops. The articles, usually presented as the work of Iraqi journalists, include "only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments," Los Angeles Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi wrote in November 2005.

The U.S. government has also targeted domestic audiences with fake news, under the current Bush and former Clinton administrations. "At least 20 federal agencies ... have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past few years," New York Times reporters David Barstow and Robin Stein wrote in March 2005. Even when government VNRs addressed controversial issues like Medicare reform and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgment of the government's role."

The administration of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger produced and distributed at least four VNRs, none of which disclosed their source to news audiences. One VNR, uncovered by the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times in February 2005, promoted proposed changes to labor regulations and was narrated by a former reporter. In December 2005, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the Schwarzenegger VNRs had undermined "the public's ability to participate in the rule-making process."

Lastly, Grade the News has documented San Francisco television stations airing VNR-like segments. These segments were not funded by clients, but provided via subscription services. In September 2003, Grade the News' Michael Stoll caught KNTV-11 airing at least three segments from NewsProNet, which provides "pre-packaged news reports" to TV stations. In March 2006, Stoll reported that many of the "Medical Journal" segments on KGO-7 were derived from VNRs from Ivanhoe Broadcast News, which provides medical and consumer segments to more than 250 TV stations across the country.

The Fake TV News Business

The broadcast PR industry, which pioneered the use of VNRs and is responsible for much of today's fake TV news, is both pervasive and secretive. In its April 2005 issue, the trade publication O'Dwyer's PR Services Report listed 49 U.S. broadcast PR firms. Nearly all offer assistance with some aspect of VNR production, distribution and/or tracking. Many manufacture other forms of fake news as well, such as audio news releases—the radio equivalent of VNRs—or satellite media tours (SMTs)—television "interviews" whose focus and scope are determined by clients, making them little more than live recitations of VNR scripts.

Television newsrooms' use of VNRs appears to be universal. Nielsen studies in 1992, 1996 and 2001 found that 100 percent of stations surveyed aired VNRs. In 2003, the chair of the major broadcast PR firm Medialink Worldwide said, "Every television station in America with a newscast has used and probably uses regularly this material from corporations and organizations that we provide." The website of another firm, KEF Media Associates, claims, "The good news is there's more demand today than ever before for quality video news releases."

Although the broadcast PR industry is large and influential, there's not much information available on it. The March 2005 New York Times report noted that Medialink Worldwide "produces and distributes about 1,000 video news releases a year, most commissioned by major corporations." An academic study from December 2000 also credited Medialink with one thousand VNRs annually, "roughly double the number of its nearest competitor." That study, by Mark Harmon and Candace White at the University of Tennessee, estimated, "A typical newsroom may have ten to fifteen VNRs available per day." In September 1990, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists estimated that "5,000 to 15,000 VNRs are distributed each year."

After producing a VNR for a client, broadcast PR firms distribute and promote it. Medialink's 2003 annual report claims that its clients' VNRs, audio news releases and print materials "reach more than 11,000 newsrooms" and "more than 11,000 online multimedia newsrooms." Most VNRs are distributed to television newsrooms via satellite feed. Some are relayed by the video feeds of news companies, such as CBS, FOX, CNN and Associated Press. As far as promoting VNRs, the firm D S Simon Productions promises "300 targeted pitch calls to broadcast networks, network affiliate news feeds, national cable outlets, regional cable networks, and syndicated shows, as well as local network affiliates and independent TV stations."

The broadcast PR industry's standard for disclosure is to identify the client(s) behind a VNR in the opening and/or closing slates—frames not intended for broadcast—and in emails and/or faxes to newsrooms. Broadcast PR firm executives have made clear that they assume no responsibility for a subsequent lack of disclosure to news audiences. In a June 2005 comment to the Federal Communications Commission, the Public Relations Society of America even warned that stronger disclosure requirements "could have a chilling effect on open communication and work against providing the public with vital, interesting information."

Hard Times for Real News

Why are television newsrooms so amenable to fake news? The main reason is that they lack the resources to fill news programs with real reporting.

"From 1998 to 2002, a study of 33,911 television reports found, the percentage of 'feed' material from third-party sources rose to 23 percent of all reports from 14 percent," Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel and political science professor Marion Just wrote in March 2005. "Meanwhile, the percentage of stories that included a local correspondent fell to 43 percent from 62 percent. Local broadcasters are being asked to do more with less, and they have been forced to rely more on prepackaged news to take up the slack."

TV network news is shaped by two trends, both harmful to news quality: the number of reporters is decreasing, and the workload per reporter is increasing. Research by Joe Foote at Arizona State University found that the number of reporters in TV network newsrooms had decreased by more than one-third, from 1985 to 2002. Over the same time frame, reporters increased their output by ten stories per year. Andrew Tyndall at ADT Research, a New York firm that monitors TV newscasts, reports that TV network newsrooms had an average of 51 reporters filing 35 stories a year in 1996, while in 2005 there were 44 reporters filing 39 stories.

Meanwhile, many local TV newsrooms have seen their budgets increase in recent years—but not by enough to fill new and expanded news programs. "One of the major issues ... has been the trend towards stations' producing more news without increasing their staff," the Project for Excellence in Journalism wrote in its State of the News Media 2006 report. "Stations did fewer reporter packages and less original reporting and enterprise, relying more on second-hand material."

In March 2006, Gail Schiller reported for Reuters that "increased competition and pressure on advertising revenue" are prompting television stations to contact "product placement, media and branded entertainment agencies," to integrate clients' products "into news programing in exchange for buying commercial time or paying integration fees." Disclosure of such arrangements is generally limited to a brief announcement or a line in the end-of-show credits. Schiller wrote, "At present, full-fledged brand integration into news programing appears to be limited to local news, but some marketing experts suspect that the network morning news shows won't be far behind."

Television newsrooms' increased emphasis on profits and decreased emphasis on reporting mean more business for broadcast PR firms, who are more than happy to fill news holes with VNRs and SMTs. But these trends also result in an increasingly compromised news environment. Three-quarters of U.S. residents surveyed for a June 2005 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press felt that news media were most concerned with "attracting the biggest audience," while less than one-fifth of respondents felt news media cared most about "informing the public."

Broadcasters are granted use of the public airwaves, in return for serving "the needs and interests of the communities" in which they operate. But when sponsored segments like VNRs and SMTs are presented to unsuspecting viewers as "news," the only interests served are those of the broadcast PR firms' clients. In addition to ignoring the public interest and betraying the public trust, TV stations airing fake news are effectively plagiarizing from biased and sometimes inaccurate materials. As this report documents, TV newsrooms frequently air, without disclosure, segments comprised of nothing beyond the provided and/or sponsored footage and accompanying script. These practices expose viewers to blatantly promotional—and sometimes misleading—TV news "reports."