Last month, the Center for Media and Democracy released a report documenting how TV stations across the United States use video news releases (VNRs). The multimedia report, which includes footage of the VNRs and news programs that incorporated them, is at www.prwatch.org.
The responses we've received from TV stations confirm what we all know—and what the Project for Excellence in Journalism, among others, has reported: TV newsrooms are being asked to do more with less, so they're increasingly turning to “provided” video. But we're also hearing, time and again, that newsroom staff are confused as to the origins of such video. So, in contravention of station policies, journalistic codes and possibly even FCC rules, stations air VNRs without disclosing to their viewers that the video was funded by and scripted for clients with particular—usually monetary—interests in the topics covered.
As we noted in our report, the PR firms that produce VNRs name their clients in the opening slates and in accompanying materials. What can be done to clear up newsroom confusion, then? We recommended that the FCC require continuous on-screen disclosure of the source of provided and/or sponsored video.
The simplest way to do that would be for PR firms to include on-screen disclosure from the get-go. As you might have gathered from a recent Broadcasting & Cable Airtime (5/1, p. 42) by Kevin Foley of KEF Media Associates, PR executives don't like that idea.
Yet the need for disclosure is widely recognized. In its April 2005 public notice, the FCC asserted, “Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them. … Whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs, licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has ruled repeatedly that, without disclosure, government-funded VNRs are illegal. In September 2005, the GAO stated, “When the television viewing public does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no longer purely factual—the essential fact of attribution is missing” (emphasis in original).
A viewer's right to know where her or his news comes from must be respected. Disclosure is not some lofty ideal, as Mr. Foley suggested. It's something newsrooms (especially those using the public airwaves) simply must provide. And until disclosure is the rule—instead of the exception, as it is currently—VNRs will continue to be controversial.