Technically they’re called Video News Releases. But whether they come from business, the government, religious institutions or academia, VNRs are simply Faux News (not to be confused with Fox Ne- . . . actually, never mind).
In 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy conducted an extensive study of VNRs, which its publication PR Watch described:
Video news releases are pre-packaged broadcast segments designed to look like television news stories, that are funded by and scripted for corporate or government clients. (See “Fake TV News: Introduction.”) On April 6, 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy released a comprehensive report detailing TV newsrooms’ use of VNRs. The report, “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed,” named 77 TV stations that aired at least one of 36 VNRs tracked over a ten-month period. Not once were the clients behind the segments—such as Pfizer, Intel and General Motors—disclosed to news audiences.
The report includes:
- Video footage of 33 video news releases (VNRs), plus the television news segments that incorporated them;
- A map showing the locations of the television stations throughout the United States that aired this fake news;
- An itemized list of the television stations that aired this fake news, by state; and
- Sections on frequently asked questions about VNR disclosure and policy issues, and on research methodology.
From the industry side, here’s an example from Toshiba (a news report would likely employ the video with a new voiceover):
The New York Times publishes an RNR – real news report
Turning to a more neutral source, in 2005 the New York Times ran a major investigative report on the Bush administration’s extensive use of VNRs.
Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News
t is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.
“Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.,” a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of “another success” in the Bush administration’s “drive to strengthen aviation security”; the reporter called it “one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history.” A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration’s determination to open markets for American farmers.
To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The “reporter” covering airport safety was actually a public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department’s office of communications.
Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.
Bush didn’t pioneer the use of VNRs as borderline government propaganda (which, not to get technical about it, is illegal), but he did vastly increase their use.
Sporadic FCC action
The 2006 CMD study did lead the Federal Communications Commission to send letters of inquiry to the 77 stations running VNRs. The FCC has taken action against three broadcasters – two of them last year.
From the RTNDA’s Communicator of March 25, 2011:
On March 24, 2011, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC or Commission) Enforcement Bureau issued Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) against two television broadcast licensees for airing material from video news releases (VNRs) in violation of the Commission’s sponsorship identification rule. The licensees, Fox Television Stations, Inc. and Access.1 New Jersey License Company, LLC, each face forfeitures of $4,000.
That’s lunch money, not to mention three out of 77 busted over the course of five years is hardly a deterrent.
So the odds are we’ll be seeing VNRs passed off as news for some time to come.
John Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is a media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
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