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TV news colored by dose of PR

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Chances are most TV viewers don't realize some of the news stories they see are produced not by journalists, but by public relations agents who work for big businesses and the government.

TV stations sometimes air video news releases (VNRs), prepackaged stories that look like real news reports, but are really designed to promote a corporate or government agenda.

In other cases, TV reporters incorporate video footage, or "B-roll," from outside sources into their stories. Reports about the space shuttle, for example, sometimes include NASA-produced footage of the vessel blasting into orbit.

The apparent lack of disclosure when airing VNRs has helped compound questions about the integrity of broadcast journalism at a time when the line between advertising departments and TV newsrooms are increasingly blurred.

Federal regulators and lawmakers are trying to figure out if viewers should be told when they see material during a newscast that has been prepared by outsiders.

If you think it's an easy call, think again.

The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to label VNRs only if the station has been paid to air it or if it deals with political or other contentious matters.

The agency collected public input on its regulations last week. It received only nine responses, primarily from executives and trade groups from the broadcasting and public relations industries, who said further regulation isn't needed.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association, a group that represents top newsroom managers, submitted a 13-page statement that said few TV stations air VNRs, and those that do almost always identify the source.

The association based its position on an informal survey of 100 members, according to Barbara Cochran, the group's president. Concrete data on VNR use is hard to come by, she said.

"It's kind of like the Loch Ness Monster. Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it," Ms. Cochran said.

The hardest data seem to come from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan media research group that asked 103 TV news directors about VNRs in 2002.

Sixty-six percent said they never use them. Of the other 34 percent, 10 percent said they always label VNRs, but the remaining 24 percent said they labeled them either "occasionally," "rarely" or "never."

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has suggested the input the FCC receives will help him determine what to do with a bill that would require the agencies to label VNRs as government productions.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, slapped the Bush administration in February for distributing VNRs that violated rules on covert propaganda.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a public relations watchdog group, was one of the organizations that wrote the FCC to call for tougher regulation of VNRs. Diane Farsetta, the group's senior researcher, rejected the idea that government shouldn't be telling TV newsrooms how to conduct their business.

"We're not saying VNRs should be banned. That would be a First Amendment violation. We're saying viewers should be told where they come from," she said.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.