News Articles

Is FTC Running a Deceptive Story?

Agency distributes DTV transition release reformatted as news article 7/11/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Part of the job of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is to crack down on deceptive advertising. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is attacking unattributed video news releases.

But that hasn't stopped the FTC from distributing a DTV transition alert, using information from the FCC among others, in the form of a press release that is formatted as a news story and bicycled to thousands of newspapers across the country.

The government has come under increasing scrutiny for the way it distributes information, from paying African-American radio host Armstrong Williams to talk up No Child Left Behind, to embedding Iraq analysts on cable news programs, to presenting the administration's opinion to producing unattributed video news releases on a variety of topics.

On July 1, the FTC had a feature article on the DTV transition pushed to community newspapers nationwide via the North American Precis Syndicate (NAPS), a company that distributes press releases and video news releases in news story format.

The article that NAPS sent out is a cut-down version of a consumer alert FTC posted on its site June 27, but without any indication it was created by the FTC. That alert, which in its full form was also picked up by various Websites that did source the FTC, was produced with information from the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), which is overseeing the DTV-to-analog converter box coupon program.

INFORMATION OR PROPAGANDA?

An FTC spokesman says the commission sees no problem with reformatting the release as a news story. (Readers can gauge the press release/article for themselves at www.broadcastingcable.comor http://www.napsnet.com/articles/58737.html.)

But Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, which mulls journalistic issues, checked out the link to the online DTV story and isn't as comfortable. “As a whole, we have a concern about the transparency of information that the government is distributing,” she told B&C, “because of the danger that it can become propaganda, and propaganda is bad for democracy. When the government distributes information, it should be clear that it's the government distributing that information. This is Civics 101.”

FCC spokesman Clyde Enslin acknowledges the commission asked for help with the digital switchover education effort from various government agencies, including the FTC, but couldn't comment on how the FTC distributed the information.

Earlier, in a finding against Comcast for airing an unattributed VNR, the FCC concluded that even though Comcast had not received payment, the VNRs themselves represented a form of compensation that required revealing who supplied the video. In this case, it was the FTC that paid to have the press release distributed as a story. The NAPS version did not mention or source the FTC, though it did cite links to the NTIA.

NAPS' service is free to newspapers and Websites, with the only requirement that users provide clippings when they run a story so that they can send them to the client, in this case the FTC.

Alvaro Puig, consumer education specialist with the FTC's division of consumer and business education, confirms that it was the FTC's call to distribute it via NAPS, a service he says the FTC periodically employs. “The reason we use NAPS is because they also have the distribution mechanism,” he says. “This goes out to about 10,000 daily and weekly community papers.”

The FTC provides the content, in this case advice on what consumers need to do to make the digital switch; then NAPS “cuts it, lays it out as a two-column news article and then we approve it,” Puig says.

'PRECIS' VS. 'PRESS'

NAPS, which creates the articles for companies, associations and government agencies for a fee, requests that the stories carry the NAPS designation, but a Google search found many of those stories being erroneously attributed to the “North American Press Syndicate,” with a link to the article at the Napsnet.com site. That could lead readers to believe that the story is from a wire service rather than a government- or company-issued release. The DTV story refers to links to the NTIA for more information, but does not identify it or the FTC as the source of the story.

“Sometimes people misspell 'Precis' as 'Press,'” admits Gary Lipton, VP for NAPS' media department. “We try to clear it up whenever we can.”

Ferreting out deceptive information is one of the FTC's jobs, but Puig said he's not concerned that the lack of any sourcing beyond the unfamiliar or potentially misleading NAPS could cause some people to believe a publication is running a news story when it is not.

“I don't think so,” he says. “We have done distribution with NAPS in the past and never had an issue come up in that regard. The story references the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, so we feel like that makes it clear who the source is.”

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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