One year ago, the government and the television news industry took heat for the use of "video news releases." They look just like independently produced news stories and run on local television stations — but they're put together by public-relations firms.
News executives say the use of such VNRs is rare. But a media advocacy group says it has proof that the practice is still going on — this time, involving corporate clients.
Late last month, a morning news show on South Florida’s WBFS-TV aired a story that listed the reasons — apart from salary — that an employee might want to stay in their job. The story begins with images of men and women in an office environment, sitting at conference tables and in front of computers. An unidentified narrator tells viewers, “Fifty-five percent of American workers are either looking for a job or are open to other offers.”
But WBFS did not report or produce that story. It lifted the script and the interviews directly from a video news release that was sent out just a few days earlier.
Towers Perrin is a major corporate consultant that commissioned a big human resources study. The New York firm D S Simon created a video news release about the study to publicize Towers Perrin's consulting work. A Towers Perrin executive appeared in the VNR — and the same executive appeared on the WBFS broadcast, too.
In fact, the WBFS story was lifted word-for-word from the video news release. But the station's viewers couldn't have known that, because WBFS didn't tell them.
“We have a policy not to do that,” says Shannon High-Bassalik, vice president for news at WBFS and WFOR-TV in Miami. “So you just got somebody in trouble. I’m glad to hear that, because that’s not something we do.”
Bassalik says her stations use video news releases sparingly — for stock footage in medical stories, for example.
“We don’t really like using VNRs, frankly,” says High-Bassalik. “In our mind, they can be tainted. Just knowing that some company had put this together taints it.”
But a new report from the Center for Media and Democracy based in Madison, Wis., says television stations routinely rely on video news releases.
Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the center, tracked 36 video news releases over 10 months. She found dozens of stations passing them off as actual news reports.
“It was pretty amazing to me, personally, how willing TV newsrooms appear to be to keep all the product mentions, all of the obvious promotional aspects of a video news release,” Farsetta says. “It’s a pretty damning look, to be honest, at television newsrooms.”
Car manufacturers, credit card dealers and drug makers were among the corporate clients whose video news releases were broadcast as though they were news stories.
Douglas Simon is the CEO of D S Simon Productions. He created the video news release for Towers Perrin that WBFS aired. He says he's helping to deliver information that's useful to the public.
“The public-relations business exists for people to put a megaphone on their messaging,” Simon says. “And if we can create content that has value for viewers, as the journalists feel, then we’re putting a megaphone to the client’s message.”
The Center for Media and Democracy and another advocacy group, the Free Press, are now calling for the Federal Communications Commission to require television stations to identify all material from video news releases. But Simon says that would give the government sway over how news professionals do their jobs.
“In our society, journalists have the right to make good decisions; they have the right to make bad decisions,” Simon says. “Unfortunately, focus on VNRs as possibly this evil thing have helped drive reporters and producers underground, to where they’re afraid to disclose it.”
Simon says he always reveals his involvement and that of his clients clearly in every video news release — and that it's up to the stations to tell viewers. High-Bassalik of WBFS says Simon's disclosure did appear — briefly — in the Towers Perrin video release, but escaped a producer's eye.