Faking It: How News Broadcasts Treat Paid-For PR Spots as News

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This article was pulled from the Folio archives. It was originally published on May 9, 2006. 

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In early April, a 10-month investigation by the Center for Media and Democracy provided the first nationwide look at the "epidemic" of fake news. The study found 77 television stations in markets of every size, including Jacksonville, aired pre-packaged, advertiser-subsidized PR materials, and passed them off as real news. Not only did the stations not disclose the source of the "news," they didn't even bother to verify whether the reports were accurate. Jane Akre looks inside the promotional machine.

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Losing weight is one of the New Year’s top resolutions, according to WJXT-Channel 4’s morning newscast. Fortunately, help is on the way — from a man who lost 245 pounds in one year eating Subway sandwiches. 

If it sounds familiar, it is. Jared Vogel — the now-slim and well-groomed if geeky spokesman for Subway, has become a pop culture cliche. The once-super-sized Indiana University student ate nothing but Subway sandwiches, then parlayed his enormous weight loss into a steady gig shilling for the sandwich chain. Usually, his visage is wedged between syndicated daytime shows. But Jared in a newscast? 

On Jan. 2, 2005, Jared appeared on Jacksonville’s independent station’s morning program in footage taken directly from a videotaped press release. The video news release — known in the industry as a VNR — was produced for Subway by New York-based public relations firm DS Simon Productions, and was intended as a marketing tool. 

But it looks like news. B-roll video shows Jared standing over a counter filled with fresh vegetables and shots of people exercising. There are also three interviews, professionally staged and lighted, featuring Jared and a dietician. Jared promotes the virtues of Subways Fresh Resolutions menu as a way to maintain a weight loss regimen. “I know personally when I was losing my weight I had a support network of friends and parents,” he explains. “Hopefully with Subway Fresh Resolutions program, it will give people the support network they need.” 

The segment is remarkable not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say. 

And that’s the point. 



If corporate America has its way, VNRs and their covert sales-and-promotion tactics will permeate every newscast in America. It’s already happening. According to Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, Jared’s pitch on Channel 4 was just one instance of an insidious PR tactic. Using slick VNRs and skilled promotional teams, “product placement moves secretly, unfiltered from the boardroom to the newsroom and then straight into our living rooms,” Farsetta says. “It’s shocking.” 

She ought to know. In early April, the Center for Media and Democracy joined the nonprofit media watchdog group Free Press in announcing the results of a 10-month investigation, “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed." The study was the first nationwide look at the practice, and the groups found an “epidemic” of fake news infiltrating local television broadcasts across the country. In all, 77 television stations in markets of every size, including Jacksonville, used 98 separate VNRs, passing the PR materials off as real news. And the agencies believe the investigation represents less than 1 percent of the VNRs distributed to local newsrooms in the last year. 

The investigation found that fake news reports reached more than half of the U.S. population, delivering seamless under-the- radar corporate sales pitches to three-quarters of the U.S. adults who rely on, according to a Harris Poll, the public airwaves for their news and information. 

VNRs aren’t just a dubious news source. Under Federal Communications Commission rules, they may be illegal. Stations are supposed to disclose a video's sponsor when its contents are political, controversial or when money has changed hands. Though most VNRs are portraits of corporate blandness, the transaction is clearly of “value” to stations. By providing a slickly produced and tightly edited segment ready for air, they are literally worth tens of thousands of dollars to stations. 

Beyond that, the FCC has ruled that using a VNR without disclosing its origins violates sponsorship identification rules and could jeopardize a stations license. 

FCC guidelines aside, VNRs violate basic tenets of professional journalism. But PR professionals, many of whom earned their chops in TV newsrooms, are practiced at finding an angle that blurs the line between advertising and news, be it a health angle or a “personal finance” concern. Once they’ve found a news hook, they beam the “news-like” package to stations through satellite feeds. 

And TV stations are letting them do it. Three other TV newscasts outside of Jacksonville allowed Jared to appear as news without disclosing Subways sponsorship. 

Channel 4 isn’t alone, of course. All local news stations that pay for the satellite feeds receive the same VNRs. Whether or not they’re “caught” using them is mostly a function of how obvious the segment is. Almost 90 percent of VNRs were produced by corporations as part of PR campaigns, among them General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One, and some are quite slick. According to the Center for Media and Democracy report: 

  • In December 2005, Sinclair Broadcasting’s WPGH in Pittsburgh aired a “news” story featuring Internet Mom Robin Raskin praising four safe high-tech gifts for children. The story was actually created by a public relations firm representing Sony, Namco and Techno Source — major video game producers. Raskin, actually a PR professional, endorsed those companies’ products while warning parents about unsafe games such as Apple’s Video iPod, a direct competitor of the VNR sponsors. WPGH was one of seven stations that ran the VNR. Not one disclosed its source.
  • At Clear Channel’s WSYR, in Syracuse, N.Y., in December 2005, health reporter Carrie Lazarus reported on a “major health breakthrough” — a dietary supplement for arthritis sufferers. Lazarus failed to tell viewers that the maker of the supplement supplied the video and interviews. 
  • Margie Elisor, a reporter at KTV1 in St. Louis, retracked a two-minute VNR word for word from a public relations firm working for Master Foods and 1-800- Flowers. Passing it off as Halloween safety tips for parents, the story featured product shots of M&M’s, Starburst and Snickers — made by Master Foods — and suggested decorating your house with flowers, courtesy of 1-800-Flowers. 

Florida broadcast journalists didn’t fare much better in enforcing the journalistic firewall between news and promotion. Corporate propaganda infiltrated TV newscasts in Miami, Ft. Myers and Lake Mary, as well as Jacksonville. 

  • “The Daily Buzz,” a syndicated morning program produced in Lake Mary, ran a minute-long segment featuring underwear-clad supermodel Gisele Bundchen hawking lipstick and eyeshadow for Victoria’s Secret. No disclaimer or labeling accompanied the piece. 
  • In March, CBS-owned WBFS Channel 33 in Miami ran a re-voiced VNR promoting the management-consulting firm Towers Perrin as an expert in workforce efficiency. In the tag, a perfect opportunity to name the sponsor, the anchor says, “that survey was conducted by a management consulting firm.” No other disclosure accompanied the video. 
  • WBBH, the NBC affiliate in Ft. Myers, owned by Waterman Broadcasting, folded a Capital One ad into their Consumer Beat” segment under the “Stopping Scams” headline. Turns out the scam is that Capital One sponsored the video in order to drive viewers to its Website. 

As deceptive as these practices seem, the Center for Media and Democracy doesn’t blame PR professionals for the explosion of fake news. After all, they’re just doing their jobs. Instead, center officials blame broadcast journalists for failing to observe a higher standard. 

“They [the public] are told they’re getting reporting they can trust,” says John Stauber, co-founder of CMD. “Then they find out it’s not even reporting. It is provided government and corporate propaganda.” 

The “Fake TV News” study found without exception that the PR firms clearly and accurately divulged the complete client funding information, often in an opening slate. For instance, the St. Louis Halloween VNR arrived at the station with this opening disclaimer: 

This video is for your free and unrestricted use. Funding has been provided by Masterfoods and 1-800-Flowers.

“As far as I know, the VNR companies are very explicit,” says Ben Scott of Free Press. “They never send a VNR that doesn’t say Panasonic or Sony.” 

The fact that TV stations fail to disclose advertiser information appears to be deliberate, according to Diane Farsetta of CMD. “One of the things we’re finding is that TV stations perhaps excuse themselves by saying, ‘We didn’t see the funding information: It got separated from the video footage,”’ she says. “But with the information in a slate contained within the video, stations would have to intentionally edit out that information." She adds, “the likelihood of missing the material is extremely unlikely.” 

In each case cited in the report, the 77 television stations actively disguised the source of the sponsored content and passed it off as their own. In some cases, they ran the PR piece using an actor hired by the agency to voice the message. In some cases, stations re-voiced the story with in-house “talent" (as anchors are frequently called), using the VNR script verbatim. 

Of the 98 separate incidents, only two stations partially disclosed that the story was prepackaged. None disclosed that it was subsidized by a private corporation with a sales agenda. 

As for the credibility of the information contained in the VNR, not one station bothered to check. In the case of the miracle drug VNR aired by WSYR in Syracuse, even a basic Google search would have revealed that the National Institutes of Health found the supplement barely out-performed a placebo. 

Said Daniel Price in an interview on CNN, “It doesn't get more one-sided than that.” 

VNRs aren't new. In the 1980s, public relations professionals began knocking on station doors, offering VHS rapes promoting their clients’ wares. Since then, most stations say they’ve developed policies to prevent the use of VNRs. Lynn Fleider, News Director of FOX 30/CBS 47, owned by Clear Channel, says its corporate policy not to use VNRs without review by management. She says there might be legitimate uses for VNRs, like if a hospital shot video for a breakthrough operation. But she insists that if the station used a VNR, it would disclose the video's source. “You want to go the extra mile to make sure your reporting is balanced,” she says, “and [that] you are maintaining editorial control.”

Ken Tonning, general manager of First Coast News (WTLV and WJXX), concurs. “We have a very strict policy: Any time there is a proposed use of VNR, it must be signed off on by the news director ... to make sure its properly credited.' 

 

Tonning adds that the station wouldn’t use VNRs during nightly broadcasts, which he considers more substantive and serious. Instead, they’d run in lighter segments, like midday newscasts. Tonning also differentiates between VNRs that come from outside advertisers and so-called satellite media tours, which might have Howie Mandel promoting his show, “Deal or No Deal.”

“'It’s promotion for the station,” Tonning says. “They’re not asking anyone to buy anything.” 

On the network level, CBS spokeswoman Shannon Jacobs e-mails the network-wide prohibition. “CBS’s policy states that if and when using material from a VNR, the station must clearly disclose on the air the origin of the information and identify all material provided by outside sources.” 

Despite the policy, one of the stations cited in the report was the CBS corporate flagship station in New York, WCBS, which aired a supplement pitch funded by the product’s manufacturer. 

“The policy wasn’t adhered to in these particular cases,” admits Jacobs. 

Steve Pontius, General Manager of WBBH in Ft. Myers, where the station was caught running a VNR from Capital One, defends his station and criticizes the Center for Media and Democracy report. “Over 10 months we will do 75,000 local news stories, and they are busting my chops over one thing?” he asks. He says the station has a policy against VNR use, but declined to release it. 

Mai Reddington, assistant news director at Jacksonville's Channel 4, say’s his news director has reiterated a prohibition against VNR use “under any circumstances, unless you get approval from a manager. We do discuss the material that goes out on our air,” he says. “We take this role more seriously than viewers would think.” 

Alan Gionet, former First Coast News anchor and now weekend anchor at WCNC in Denver, says he views VNR use as newsroom laziness. “If you let somebody else do your job for you, you are not a reporter,” he says. Gionet can’t remember a single instance at Channel 12 where a VNR made it on air, and he says the news director at his new station recently sent out a reminder to staff not to use them. 

What bothers Gionet more than the VNR trend is the lack of hard local news of any kind in the standard 30-minute news cast. “When news operations don’t devote time to issues of local government that affect people every day, and balancing out those issues, those are the biggest things for me." he says. “I don’t like a newscast full of fluff.” 

"There is no line anymore,” says Marcia Ladendorff, former anchor at CNN as well as at Channel 12 from 1986 to 1993, who now teaches media literacy classes at University of North Florida. (Ladendorff has also written media columns for Folio Weekly.) 

Ladendorff and others in the news business believe more VNRs are slipping through at stations with fewer experienced journalists and larger news holes. 

 

Jacksonville the No. 52 market in the country’ — tends to have younger behind-the-scenes producers on their way up. 

“It’s all about economics,” she says. “Companies like Clear Channel, which are big around the world, made their money by cutting their overhead and increasing the production of programming. When you have a lot of newscasts, you have to fill that time with something. And when you have a reduced staff, why not?” says Ladendorff. 

Indeed, the CMD survey finds more than 80 percent of the stations snared in the investigation are owned by large conglomerates such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, Clear Channel Communications, News Corp/FOX Television, Viacom/CBS Corp and Tribune Company. Jacksonville could be considered the nation’s test case for consolidation. Clear Channel owns and operates WAWS TV-30, the Fox/UPN station and the CBS station, WTEV-TV 47. Gannett owns and operates W1TV TV-12 and WJXX TV-25, the NBC and ABC affiliates. However, none of these stations was named in the survey. Ironically, it was Channel 4, the city’s only independent station that was identified in the study. Asked how the Jared piece made it on the air, Reddington of Channel 4 makes a distinction between nightly news and the morning shows, where the Subway bit aired. 

“The morning has a lot of news, chat and cooking,” he says. “People understand that ‘The Today Show’ is a different show than Brian Williams, don’t they?” 

But Ladendorff says that, no matter when they’re aired, VNRs fly in the face of journalistic standards. “VNRs are wicked and deceitful and fraud,” she says. 

When President Bush landed on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003, the nation was treated to orchestrated news at its finest. The fact that he appeared before a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner was not a stroke of coincidence. The Commander-in-Chief and his staff have become masters of media management. 

This became clearer in early 2005, when conservative columnist Armstrong Williams admitted receiving $240,000 from the Bush Education Department to promote No Child Left Behind on his TV and radio appearances. The deal was part of a $1 million contract with Ketchum public relations to produce VNRs to slip into newscasts. 

The White House even began making its own VNRs. PR publicist Karen Ryan taped several “reports” on the new Medicare bill in 2004 on behalf of the administration, segments she invariably concluded with the words, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” The segments aired on stations across the country. 

Lynn Heider of Channels 30/47 was bothered by that practice. “I can see where some producer without oversight would think that’s a legitimate story, especially when they started appearing on the servers sent by CNN.” Though Heider says she never could determine whether her stations used the Bush VNRs, she can understand how they might have. 

The faux news scandal blew up when Ryan and the Bush administration were outed, first by a New York Times editorial, and then by a General Accounting Office probe that looked into the use of taxpayer money for political propaganda. The administration got a slap on the wrist. 

In a March 2005 story, the New York Times summed up the administration's use of propaganda as news. In the “New Age of Prepackaged TV News” investigation, the paper found VNRs ranging from jubilant Iraqi-Americans telling a camera crew, “Thank you, Bush, thank you, USA'' after the fall of Baghdad, to Medicare reform. 

At least 20 federal agencies were named as the source of hundreds of television news segments since 2001. Most were broadcast on local stations with no comments about source motives or reliability. 

One month later the FCC came out swinging. The use of VNRs, without identifying the source, violates the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules intended to inform viewers of die source of the information so they can reasonably judge its accuracy and credibility. Failure to disclose the funding source of promotional or propaganda video, the FCC said, could lead the agency to revoke die stations license or issue a fine. 

To date, the FCC has fined stations following indecency complaints, but has issued no fines for the use of VNRs. 

Scott of Free Press says the FCC is too much in the thrall of broadcaster lobbyists to truly crack down. But on April 6, his agency delivered a formal complaint to the FCC, urging it to take immediate action to stop VNR use and abuse. 

“It’s a fundamental betrayal of the public trust,” says Scott. “It’s fraud.” 

And while a journalist’s ethical code tells professionals to expose unethical practices, Ladendorff says the world of TV news has been particularly silent on newsroom transgressions. 

“The gatekeepers are the last ones to tell you what’s going on inside their newsrooms.” 

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