One news director says, "I have been instructed by corporate not to talk to you."
Hours after the Center for Media and Democracy released our study on television stations' widespread and undisclosed use of corporate video news releases (VNRs), a major organization of broadcast news executives issued its response.
"The Radio-Television News Directors Association strongly urges station management to review and strengthen their policies requiring complete disclosure of any outside material used in news programming," read the statement. RTNDA went on to caution that decisions involving "when and how to identify sources ... must remain far removed from government involvement or supervision."
Unfortunately, RTNDA's statement conflates "sources" with broadcast material funded by and produced for outside parties. It also conveniently ignores that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, under its authority to regulate broadcasters' use of the public airwaves, already has disclosure requirements (PDF) on the books. But RTNDA's stance does point to an important, underlying issue: how to ensure both news audiences' right to know "who seeks to influence them," and the editorial freedom of newsrooms.
The Society of Professional Journalists also responded to our study, strongly condemning TV stations' "irresponsible" and "misleading" use of VNRs. Their statement, similar to RTNDA's, "urges broadcast companies to set their own house in order by using extreme caution and full disclosure when airing VNRs." However, such admonitions fail to take into consideration the continuing confusion over video feeds' origins, the history of TV stations' failure to disclose VNRs, the harsh realities of resource-strapped TV newsrooms, and the embarrassment factor that likely makes newsrooms reluctant to identify VNRs as such.
Is it reasonable, within the context of the current system, to expect TV stations to meet the disclosure standards that we all agree on -- and that the FCC is charged to uphold? After hearing the explanations and delving into the records of many of the TV stations that we documented airing fake news, I would say no.
TV News: A Mistake-Prone Profession
By far, the most common response to our study from TV stations -- besides "no comment" -- was that mistakes or confusion led to their airing VNRs, without disclosure. John Rossi, the general manager of Oklahoma City's KOKH-25, told me that his station made "an honest mistake" when it aired six of the VNRs that we tracked. "There was no intention to mislead the viewers," he stressed.
KOKH uses Pathfire, a digital video system that delivers real news feeds, VNRs and advertisements to many TV stations across the country. Rossi said that KOKH staff made "an assumption that it was not a VNR" if the video in question appeared anywhere else besides Pathfire's VNR section. He explained that Pathfire gives a "brief pop up" notification if a video is a VNR, but that KOKH staff repeatedly missed that message, as they were "going in to preview the text of the story."
Pathfire's website claims that the system provides VNRs "on the same platform as network news content, but in a clearly differentiated area so users enjoy all of the benefits of easy access with no potential source confusion." Rossi assured me that KOKH staff have now been directed to pay close attention to the Pathfire notifications. In the future, "if we air a VNR, we will disclose it," he promised.
Other TV stations' explanations were similar, if more vague. The news director at Los Angeles' KABC-7 told the Los Angeles Daily News, "ABC7 Eyewitness News has a policy against using VNRs in their entirety or even using excerpts without appropriate attribution and original reporting to confirm or contradict the claims. ... Nonetheless, a VNR about an allergy test called Immunocap did somehow slip through the cracks last September."
The news director at New York's WCBS-2 explained in an email to a viewer that her station aired a health supplement company's VNR because "there was a misidentification of the videotape in question that led our news writer and news managers to believe they were working from material supplied by another CBS affiliate. In the hectic atmosphere of our newsroom that day -- the day that the Antrax [sic] was discovered in a Brooklyn warehouse -- our internal safeguards failed. We have since examined our internal procedures and taken steps to make sure this does not happen again."
A spokesperson for San Francisco's KPIX-5 told the San Francisco Weekly that their airing of a Pfizer VNR "was clearly a mistake and a violation of our own policy and a violation of FCC rules." KPIX's vice-president of news emailed in response to a viewer complaint, "A new reporter on our staff failed to attribute the source of this video."
In Syracuse, NY, the news director at WSYR-9 admitted, "A mistake was made here." The vice-president for news at WBFS-33 in Miami, FL, told a National Public Radio reporter that "disclosure did appear -- briefly -- in the Towers Perrin video release, but escaped a producer's eye."
The news director at Ohio News Network begrudgingly admitted a mistake, after we documented the cable station airing a VNR about modular car dashboards. "It is worth noting that the information did air on a lifestyle, non-news portion of a program called Technology Tuesday," he told the Columbus Dispatch. "But, again, we should have been employing proper disclosure on screen."
The news director at WCPO-9 in Cincinnati, OH, seemed not to understand that we found his station airing two VNRs, without any on screen or verbal disclosure. He emailed a concerned viewer that WCPO is "conducting an in house review" and "creating new written rules to avoid any sense of a failure to disclose." He added, "I feel we have been obvious in our writing, but it's clear the Center for Media and Democracy disagrees. Is there some way we can be even more obvious in our disclosure? I'm sure there is and that's what we are working on for the future."
Frequent News Fakers
These lapses might be easier to accept if so many TV stations weren't repeat offenders.
Of the 77 TV stations named in our study, we documented fourteen airing two or more fake news segments. The New York Times previously reported that two other stations in our study, WCIA-3 in Champaign, IL, and WHBQ-13 in Memphis, TN, had aired VNRs from U.S. government agencies. And, over the past few weeks, I've uncovered more evidence of prior fake news usage.
Ed Kral, the news director at WSJV-28 in South Bend, IN, initially contacted the Center for Media and Democracy to say that his station's use of a General Motors VNR was an accident. But according to a Citigroup website, WSJV aired a VNR promoting the company's "Do Something Financial Education Challenge" in April 2005 (as did Los Angeles' KCBS-2). When I called Kral back, he told me, "I have been instructed by corporate not to talk to you people."
WBRZ-2 in Baton Rouge, LA, also aired one of the VNRs we tracked, about the "ethanol boom." WBRZ's news director told a local newspaper that station policy is to "clearly identify the source of the footage, verbally and with an on-air graphic." But that didn't happen with the ethanol VNR -- or when WBRZ aired the infamous Medicare VNR featuring reporter-turned-flack Karen Ryan. On January 23, 2004, a WBRZ anchor introduced that VNR -- which was later found to be covert propaganda -- by saying:
In December, President Bush signed into law the first ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.
Other TV stations named in our study had previously aired segments "reported" by Karen Ryan. KMAX-31 in Sacramento aired a corporate VNR that Ryan did on frequent flier programs, while Pittsburgh's WPGH-53 aired another Ryan VNR in August 2003, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (In response to our study, WPGH's former news manager told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "These things are getting on the air everywhere because they're not being labeled as for-profit stories. If they're cleverly worded, you don't know they are for a particular product.")
In October 2004, CJR Daily reported that WLFL-22 in Raleigh, NC, had aired a Karen Ryan VNR "that sang the praises of the No Child Left Behind Act." Philadelphia's WPVI-6 broadcast a different Education Department VNR, sans Ryan, again according to CJR Daily. (We documented WLFL and WPVI both airing the same VNR, which was jointly funded by Panasonic, Namco and Techno Source, in November 2005.) Back in April 1995, WPVI aired a VNR funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as did Los Angeles' KTLA-5 and WWTV-9 in Tustin, MI, according to the foundation's website.
In 2004, reporter Allen Salkin identified several TV stations that "ran a video news release produced by the dairy industry about how eating cheese and butter can help people lose weight." His list includes KTXL-40 in Sacramento; we found KTXL airing an American Dental Association VNR. (In a statement, KTXL's news director said the ADA segment "appeared on the daily Fox network news feed. ... Fox says it does not rely on VNR company interviews for its news packages, but the network did acknowledge using some video of the dental technology from the VNR.")
But it may be Detroit's WJBK-2 that holds the dubious distinction of having the longest documented history of VNR usage. We found WJBK airing two VNRs in early 2006 -- one promoting Cadillac cars and the other touting a "porn-free" search engine. Back in October 2000, the station aired a VNR from Dephi Automotive Systems that "detailed developments in automotive electronics," according to a PR firm's website.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 1991, WJBK aired portions of a VNR that promoted Upjohn's anti-anxiety drug, Xanax. As Steven Taylor and Morton Mintz reported in The Nation, a WJBK anchor claimed, "Doctors say there seem to be few side effects to the drug." "Actually," wrote Taylor and Mintz, "in some cases Xanax does have serious adverse effects, such as blurred vision, sexual dysfunction, confusion, dizziness, impaired attention and addiction."
What WJBK lacks in journalistic scruples, it might make up for in bluntness. In response to our inquiries about the station's disclosure policies, WJBK's Al Johnson emailed, "Yes we use SMT's [satellite media tours, which are sponsored, canned "interviews"] and to a lesser degree VNR's. No, we never disclose sources." Detroit viewers -- you've been warned.
Now, the VNRs described above were aired by TV stations named in our study, but there's no evidence that these stations are any worse -- or any better -- than the hundreds of other stations in the United States. Indeed, until full disclosure is practiced in deed as well as on paper, we won't know how many fake news hounds roam among us.
If you want to know whether your local stations air VNRs, urge the FCC to enforce its disclosure requirements. You can also do your own research; many of the above examples were found with simple Internet searches for "video news release" and the station's name. Please add whatever you're able to document to our collaborative online encyclopedia, SourceWatch, which has a growing section on "Fake News Broadcasters."
A Few Good Eggs
Of the 77 TV stations named in our study, two did have more constructive responses.
The news director at WNEP-16 in Wilkes-Barre, PA, explained that their airing a health supplement company's VNR in February 2006 was "an honest mistake. ... Our reporter thought the material was from the New England Journal of Medicine." What made WNEP's response remarkable was the following:
We have a duty to our viewers to present the news accurately and fairly, and to properly attribute the sources of all the materials that go into our reports. We take that responsibility very seriously, and we recognize our error. We sincerely apologize to our viewers.
The only thing the WNEP statement lacked was an explanation of how they will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Los Angeles' KCBS-2 did that and more.
"We are making an immediate change in our policy on VNRs and HANDOUT VIDEOTAPE," read a memo circulated to KCBS and KCAL-9 news staff, the week after our study was published. "We will no longer use material from Video News Releases which come to us via CBS Newspath, CNN Newsource, APTN or any other service or Digital Media Gateway in anything we produce." The memo clarified that "handout video" may still be used, but "the source of this video will be identified in both chyron [an on-screen identifier] (to be displayed over every second of the video) and in copy read by the anchor, WITH NO EXCEPTION."
Perhaps the most hopeful reaction to our study came not from a TV station, but from FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. As he explained on the Pacifica News show Democracy Now!, "Clearly, [VNRs] are unethical when they are not being disclosed to the public. But further, there's a federal law that requires that the public be informed about the source of who is behind what goes on broadcast media."
As noted above, some organizations are concerned that mandating disclosure of VNRs would diminish TV newsrooms' editorial freedom. In addition to ignoring laws already on the books, that stance helps maintain a rotten status quo -- ineffective codes of conduct, confused newsroom staff, and little or no respect for the viewers' right to know "who seeks to influence them." Not only that, but it sets the stage for the further blending of news, public relations and advertising already being pioneered by broadcast PR firms.
Kevin Foley of the firm KEF Media Associates wrote in the April 2006 issue of O'Dwyer's PR Report, "The once sacrosanct wall between editorial and advertising in TV newsrooms has all but crumbled to dust. ... Local TV news is no longer in the business of shedding light on our social ills. It's in the business of keeping the viewer's hand off the remote, so virtually anything goes as long as it feeds the beast with ad revenue."
He's not sounding a call for concerned citizens to hold their news media accountable. He's urging fellow PR executives to "adapt and, hopefully, thrive" in a new media landscape. And they will do just that, to the great benefit of their clients -- unless and until we take the threat of fake news seriously.