Study: 'Video News Releases' Common in Local TV A new study by a watchdog group finds the use of corporate "video news releases" in stories by local TV stations is widespread. And it routinely occurs without any disclosure to viewers.

Study: 'Video News Releases' Common in Local TV

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One year ago, the television news industry took a lot of heat for using government-sponsored video news releases in their newscasts. These VNR's look just like independently produced stories and they sometimes run on local stations. But they are put together by public relations firms.

News executives say the use of video news releases is rare, but a media advocacy group has proof of their rampant use, and this time the reports promote corporations.

NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.


Here's how a news story started on a morning news show on South Florida's WBFS-TV late last month.

Unidentified Woman #1: Fifty-five percent of American workers are either looking for a job or open to other offers, and they're looking for more than just money. They also want opportunities for challenge and growth.

FOLKENFLIK: But WBFS did not reporter-produce that story. It drew directly from this video news release, sent out just a few days earlier.

Unidentified Woman #2: Fifty-five percent of American workers are either looking for a job or open to other offers, and they're looking for more than just money. They also want opportunities for challenge and growth.

FOLKENFLIK: The New York publicity firm DS Simon created that video news release to promote the consulting work of the company Towers Perrin. 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.

Ms. SHANNON HIGH-BASSALIK (Vice President for News, WBFS and WFOR, Miami): So you just got somebody in trouble, because that's not something we do.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Shannon High-Bassalik, Vice President for News at WBFS and WFOR-TV in Miami. She says her stations use video news releases sparingly, for stock footage in medical stories, for example.

Ms. HIGH-BASSALIK: We don't really like using VNR's, frankly. In our mind, they can be tainted. Just in knowing that some company had somebody put this together taints it.

FOLKENFLIK: But a new report from the Center for Media and Democracy, based in Madison, Wisconsin, says television stations routinely rely on video news releases.

Diane Farsetta is a senior researcher at the center. She tracked 36 VNR's over ten months, and found dozens of stations passing them off as actual news reports.

Ms. DIANE FARSETTA (Senior Researcher, Center for Media and Democracy): It was pretty amazing to me personally, how willing TV newsrooms appear to be to keep in all of the product mentions, all of the obvious promotional aspects, of a video news release. It's a pretty damning look, to be honest, at television newsrooms.

FOLKENFLIK: Car manufacturers, credit card dealers, 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 DS Simon Productions. He created the VNR you heard earlier for Towers Perrin, and he says he's helping to deliver information that's useful to the public.

Mr. DOUGLAS SIMON (President and CEO, DS Simon Productions): The public relations business exists for people to put a megaphone on their messaging. 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.

FOLKENFLIK: 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 say over how news professionals do their jobs.

Mr. SIMON: In our society, journalists have the right to make the decisions. They have the right to make bad decisions.

FOLKENFLIK: He says he fears the attacks on VNR's make discourage TV stations from disclosing their use. Simon says he always clearly reveals his involvement and that of his clients in every VNR, and that it's up to the stations to inform viewers.

High-Bassalik, of WBFS, says Simon's disclosure did appear, briefly, in the Towers Perrin video release, but escaped a producer's eye.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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