A Fake News Report About Fake E-Mail

Software company VNR is nationally syndicated through the Tribune network

Submitted by Daniel Price on
Clients: Trend Micro Software
Release Date: November 2005
Aired By: 9 stations
Disclosed By: No stations

On November 3, 2005, KOKH-25 (Oklahoma City, OK) ran a two-minute story on "phishing" scams: fraudulent e-mails designed by identity theives to trick people into divulging personal financial information. The news report featured testimony from Jessica Sweedler, a Bay Area phishing victim; Mikael Niehoff, a technology crime unit detective; and David Perry, and a computer security expert from Trend Micro Software. In no uncertain terms, the report recommended PC-Cilin, a $50 Internet security program from Trend Micro, as "a first line of defense" against phishing scams.

What viewers couldn't have possibly known is that the KOKH-25 story was a scam in itself. The report was actually a video news release (VNR) created by D S Simon Productions and funded by Trend Micro. Without a hint of attribution, KOKH-25 dropped the complete and uncut VNR into their 9:00 PM newscast. To help disguise the promotional video as their own journalism, editors at KOKH-25 inserted station-branded text overlays and anchor Andrew Speno introduced the VNR's narrating publicist, Jim Lawrence, as if he were a local reporter.

Along with KOKH-25, 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.

On November 9, Knutsson introduced his own edited version of the VNR, a shorter remix with new scene transitions, background music, and a re-dubbed voiceover provided by Knutsson himself. Although he kept in every mention of 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.

In addition to his KTLA-5 studio report, Knuttson appeared live via satellite on stations in at least four other cities, including WPIX-11 (New York, NY), WGN-9 (Chicago, IL), KWGN-2 (Denver, CO), and WXIN-59 (Indianapolis, IN).

A station-edited cut of the VNR also appeared on KRDO-13 (Colorado Springs, CO), while an uncut version aired on KAIT-8 (Jonesboro, AR). Yet another unedited version of the VNR, revoiced by station reporter Margie Ellisor, aired on KTVI-2 (St. Louis, MO). In October, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) had documented KTVI-2 incorporating a Halloween VNR from Masterfoods and 1-800-Flowers, again enlisting Ellisor to provide a reporter re-voice.

Of all these stations, none disclosed Trend Micro as the funding source of the story.

In the course of its ten-month study, CMD has observed KOKH-25 airing corporate-funded VNRs on six separate occasions. Along with Trend Micro, the station has aired VNRs from Panasonic, Intel, Cadillac, Chemistry.com, and Towers Perrin, all without attribution.

See the original Trend Micro VNR, as well as the KOKH-25 news segment and the CyberGuy features from WPIX-11 and KTLA-5, below.

Original Trend Micro VNR KOKH-25 9PM newscast
Created by D S Simon Productions November 3, 2005
Voiced by publicist Uncut VNR with voice of publicist
WPIX-11 "CyberGuy" feature KTLA-5 "CyberGuy" feature
November 9, 2005 November 9, 2005
Edited VNR re-voiced by Kurt Knutsson Edited VNR re-voiced by Kurt Knutsson