Still Not the News: Methodology

Submitted by Diane Farsetta on

From April to October 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) tracked television stations' use of video news releases (VNRs) from three major broadcast public relations firms: Medialink Worldwide, MultiVu and D S Simon Productions.

Most VNRs were viewed via publicly-available websites, such as Medialink's "News Service" homepage, MultiVu's recent VNR listing, and video aggregators, such as Google's video search engine and video podcasts from the PR firms themselves. A few VNRs tracked in this study were obtained from websites requiring registration; CMD accessed these with the help of supportive news staff.

From the available pool of VNRs, CMD researchers selected pre-packaged, narrated segments that were produced for a range of clients and addressed a wide variety of topics. The goal was to track a representative subset of VNRs produced by the three PR firms over the course of the study. Over 26 weeks, CMD researchers selected 109 VNRs for tracking.

For each VNR tracked, CMD researchers identified soundbite speakers and words or phrases likely to be unique to newscast segments containing footage from the VNR. These terms were submitted to broadcast clipping services, which searched for the key terms among U.S. television broadcasts, generally over a period of 10 days to two weeks following the release of each VNR.

Search results were reviewed by CMD researchers, who compared each newscast segment to the original VNR. Of the 109 total VNRs tracked, CMD confirmed that 33 had been broadcast, in whole or in part, by TV stations.* Due to technical factors—for instance, the limitations of key term searches and of broadcast clipping services, which attempt to catalog the content of more than 1,600 U.S. television stations—it is likely that the results reported here do not include every TV station that aired one or more of the 109 VNRs tracked for this study.

For each instance of confirmed VNR usage, two CMD researchers independently reviewed the video and recorded:

  • The TV station and the day and time of the VNR broadcast;
  • Whether the VNR was aired in whole or in part;
  • Whether the TV station used the publicist's original narration or re-voiced the segment (and, if re-voiced, how closely the station's narration followed the original VNR script);
  • Whether the aired segment was entirely derived from the VNR or contained other video footage;
  • Whether the newscast retained, neutralized or countered the VNR's promotional or persuasional message; and
  • Whether the TV station made any attempt to disclose the nature or source of the VNR footage to viewers.

Every single VNR broadcast confirmed by CMD is reported in this study. For 45 of 54 confirmed VNR broadcasts** (or 83 percent of the total), CMD was able to obtain video of the newscast for posting online, along with the original VNR. This study also contains written descriptions of all confirmed VNR broadcasts, including when and how the TV station used the VNR footage, and whether there was any disclosure to news audiences.

Lastly, CMD called the news director at every TV station cited, to ask about the particular VNR broadcast(s) by their station and about the station's policy on VNR use and disclosure. News director comments are included in the relevant article(s) on each VNR.

* Unlike CMD's April 2006 "Fake TV News" report, satellite media tour footage was excluded from the reported VNR search results.

** This study counts the nine ABC affiliate broadcasts of the same segment containing video from a Barr Laboratories VNR as one VNR broadcast, since the TV stations appear to have obtained the segment from a network news feed. The nine ABC affiliates that CMD documented airing the segment are listed in the VNR write-up, but are counted as one TV station (representing the originator of the segment) in this study's station tally.