Video news releases produced by federal agencies pop up from time to time in the real news. It happened again this spring, which drove The New York Times to produce this editorial scolding:
“The Bush administration has come under a lot of criticism for its attempts to fob off government propaganda as genuine news reports. Whether federal agencies are purchasing the services of supposedly independent columnists or making videos extolling White House initiatives and then disguising them as TV news reports, that’s wrong. But it is time to acknowledge that the nation’s news organizations have played a large and unappetizing role in deceiving the public.”
Actually, the time for acknowledging that was much earlier, and SPJ’s ethics chairman, Gary Hill, did just that in a statement issued in the spring of 2004.
And he wasn’t the only one. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, American Journalism Review and others pointed out that there are two parties to this deceptive practice – the agencies that produce the fake news clips and the stations that air them.
SPJ’s statement called it “professional laziness.”
The Public Relations Society of America issued a statement, too, recommending ethical guidelines for advocates who produce video news releases.
And this all happened more than a year ago.
What recently roused the Times, however, was its own reporting about the Bush administration’s heavy use of public relations. In its first four years, The Times reported, the Bush administration spent $254 million in contracts with public relations agencies, and more than 20 federal agencies had created these misleading videos.
The Times report had several examples: A reporter in Memphis narrated a State Department video, using the text that came with it; a rural Illinois station asked the Agriculture Department to have its “reporter” refer to its morning show.
“Television stations that are short on reporters, long on air time to fill and (are) unwilling to spend the money needed for real news gathering are abdicating their editorial responsibilities to the government’s publicity teams,” The Times opined.
Gary Hill is a modest sort, and he wouldn’t be one to brag about this. But SPJ’s statement made the same points a year earlier.
Because Gary is a television guy – director of investigations for KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities – he knows how these things work.
He said “both the government officials who use this deceptive promotional tool and the journalists who have long acquiesced in this and similar practices are doing a grave disservice to the public interest.
“The temptation, especially for smaller newsrooms with limited staff and resources, is enormous,” he said. “Record the feed, copy the suggested ‘lead-in’ for your anchor to read and drop the item in your newscast. Suddenly a two-minute hole in the newscast is filled, and no one is the wiser. Therein lies the problem. You’ve just pulled the wool over your viewers’ eyes and allowed someone with a product or point of view to sell to hijack your newscast. You’ve voluntarily surrendered your editorial control – and your credibility – without a fight, without even a whimper for that matter.”
PRSA, while defending VNRs as a legitimate public relations tool, said certain standards still should apply. Organizations that produce them should make it clear what they are and “fully disclose who produced it and paid for it.” The media outlets that use them should identify the source. And VNRs “should not use the word ‘reporting’ if the narrator is not a reporter,” PRSA said. That also was a year ago.
Some SPJ Ethics Committee members think it would be a good idea, too, if an identifying disclaimer were constantly on-screen while the VNR is running. Sometimes these are dropped by the services that provide them to stations. As Hill points out, that should never happen. The source should be identified visibly and in the text.
After the watchdog General Accounting Office found that some of these electronic handouts violated restrictions against government propaganda, federal agencies are promising to be more careful and to label these VNRs for what they are.
Broadcasters need standards, too. If a station thinks the subject is relevant, useful and interesting but doesn’t have the resources to cover it with its own staff, then why not use a VNR? But “check the stories for balance and completeness and re-edit the text and tape where appropriate,” Hill advises, making sure the source is still clearly labeled.
There’s a real ethical question about whether the government should be doing this with taxpayer dollars. Stations might want to consider if they should use them at all.
As The New York Times said lately, “This kind of practice cheapens the real commodity that television stations have to sell during their news hours: their credibility.”
Where had we heard that before?
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.