Saturday, January 20, 2007


I am disgusted by the conflation of advertising and, well, everything else. The worst part, to me, is the impossibility(?) of culling what's real from what's manufactured to pique our consumer interest.

I enjoyed this article by Diana Farsetta of the Center for Media and Democracy. It only really addresses the law, so what do you think of the ethics involved?

". . . Public relations firms have produced and provided to TV stations segments called video news releases, or VNRs, since the 1980s.

"VNRs are pre-packaged segments and additional video that mimic independent news reports, in order to facilitate their incorporation into TV newscasts. However, unlike independent reports, VNRs promote the products, services, public image and/or policy agenda of the client(s) that funded them.

"For example, the Bush administration commissioned VNRs promoting its Medicare prescription drug policy. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration funded VNRs in support of its proposed workplace rule changes. And the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline paid for a VNR touting the company’s new flu vaccine. All of these segments were subsequently presented to viewers as 'news.'

"The ethical and legal questions surrounding VNRs have been hotly debated in recent years. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office repeatedly ruled that government-funded VNRs that do not make their source clear to viewers constitute illegal, covert propaganda. In March 2005, the New York Times published a front-page exposé on government VNRs, which found that 'many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgment of the government’s role.' . . .

"In April 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy released a report (which [Farsetta] co-authored) on TV stations’ use of VNRs. By tracking an estimated 1 percent of the total number of VNRs produced over the course of the investigation, the report identified 77 stations – including ones in major markets – that had aired sponsored segments. 'In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients’ messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research,' concluded the report. 'More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety.'

"Four months later, the Federal Communications Commission launched a formal investigation of these 77 stations. The inquiry centers on whether the undisclosed VNR broadcasts violate federal sponsorship identification rules. In an earlier Public Notice on VNRs, the FCC had unanimously affirmed that the public is 'entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems.'

. . .

"CMD recommends that all VNRs carry a continuous on-screen disclosure of their source, and that this disclosure be added before the VNRs are disseminated to TV stations. In conjunction with the media reform group Free Press, CMD filed formal complaints with the FCC and urged the agency to enforce the federal sponsorship identification rules. Not surprisingly, lawyers for the broadcast and public relations industries have challenged the CMD reports and called on the FCC to stop its investigation."



At Sunday, January 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's really important to address the use of VNRs.
At the station I worked at, the news director ended up sending out a memo on them, along with the policy of the company that owned the station. The news director was very clear - don't use them at all.

Unfortunately, they have crept in so many places, and sometimes even producers don't know if a story is VNR or has part of a VNR in it.

Ethically, as journalists, we need to question where any story comes from. And certainly to be judicious in using that type of material (and identifying it as such), if we choose to use it (which just feels icky).


At Sunday, January 21, 2007, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Sunday, January 21, 2007, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

I totally agree with LA. The news director I worked for wasn't staunchly anti-VNR's but there was a definite attempt to monitor them and to place the burden of responsibility for monitoring their content on the station's parent media company....which to me, makes it tough because parent companies are often not media agencies who would have difficulty figuring out a VNR from a story that just happens to directly or indirectly advertise.



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