Are Video News Releases All Bad?
By Kevin E. Foley -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/30/2006 8:00:00 PM
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) recently released a study purporting to expose the misuse of video news releases (VNRs) and satellite-media tour interviews that went “unattributed” by the newscasts that aired them.
In trumpeting the “discovery,” CMD Executive Director John Stauber made this declaration: “Fake TV news is the worst plagiarism scandal in American journalism, and it must be stopped by labeling all VNRs onscreen so viewers can tell if it’s news or fake news.”
What is fake news? Stauber chose this pejorative carefully because “fake” implies dishonesty—or worse. But if I produce a VNR on a new treatment for cervical cancer and it passes FDA muster, where’s the dishonesty? Should the TV newscast that airs this VNR put a “courtesy” graphic on the segment? This would please CMD. But if the newscaster fails to do so and a viewer with first-stage cervical cancer learns of the new treatment by watching the VNR on the newscast, how has the public been deceived? Where is “fake”?
Times have changed, and the commercial interests in television today demand financial accountability from news operations. With fewer resources at their disposal, the pressure is on the producers to fill airtime with newsworthy, informative and even entertaining content. It’s a daunting challenge in many TV markets without outside help.
Enter companies like mine, with useful and innocuous content about everything from a new flavor of soda to recent advances in the treatment of allergies. We clearly label the source before offering this content to TV newscasters for their free and unrestricted use. Often, it’s gratefully accepted and aired. Usually, the content is edited, shortened, localized and, ideally, attributed.
CMD would have us believe that some great social harm is being done if a VNR isn’t attributed, but if the newscaster airs a story that holds the viewer’s attention and the viewer walks away informed or entertained, who has been hurt? Newscasters decide the editorial value of the content we offer as they’ve always done, so it’s not as though there aren’t safeguards in place.
Indeed, one of the most common practices in print journalism is to lift quotes and even blocks of copy from press releases. Reporters from local weekly newspapers to The New York Times do it every day without ever disclosing to the reader the source of the material. And you know what? Nobody cares.
I applaud Stauber’s instincts for publicity but take exception to the incomplete and self-serving “findings” and to his inflammatory rhetoric that impugns the integrity of the PR and TV news industries.
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