The video that many American television stations nationwide aired in early 2003 looked like a typical news report. A narrator identifying herself as Karen Ryan explained the changes in Medicare brought by the 2003 Medicare Drug Improvement and Modernization Act. Ryan reported that the new changes should help seniors “stay healthy and have a better quality of life.”
Ryan, the media learned, was a former journalist turned public relations specialist who owned a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. She had contracted with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to produce the video news release promoting Medicare’s new drug benefit.
A media firestorm erupted when it was learned that several stations aired the VNR without identifying its sponsor, and many critics questioned the ethics of using VNRs in broadcast journalism.
The heated debate, which continues unabated, highlights a continuing controversy in broadcast journalism. Television networks and local news crews once exclusively produced the news, but they have become heavily reliant for their news sources on VNRs, which are easily made available to networks and stations by satellite feed.
John Stauber, Executive Vice President for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring quality local television, described the use of the Ryan VNR as “plagiarism.”
“When a print reporter or editor lifts verbatim from a press release, doesn’t identify the source and puts it out as news, that’s plagiarism. Likewise, the use of VNRs is plagiarism because the media has routinely palmed them off on the public as authentic television news reports, and they make no effort to verify the accuracy of the sponsors’ claims.”
The Public Relations Society of America defended the VNR as the television equivalent of the print news release. In an article at its Web site, PRSA said Ryan was “thrust into the center of the mud-wrestling pit that is the nation’s capital” and that her name had been “summarily dragged through the sludge.”
The U.S. Government Accounting Office issued a report, revealing that 20 federal agencies had produced and distributed VNRs during the Bush administration and concluded that the Bush administration had violated rules against “publicity and propaganda.” The administration countered that the GAO report “fails to recognize the distinction between covert propaganda and purely informational video news reports.”
PR firms, advertising agencies, government agencies at all levels and even nonprofits produce VNRs to promote personalities, advocate causes and pitch products or services. Elements of a typical VNR include a narration/voiceover, a suggested written script and tips on how the story can be localized.
According to PRSA, the PR industry has produced VNRs in this manner for more than 25 years.
“Our company provides a valuable news service to television stations,” said Yvonne Goforth, senior vice president for KEF Media Associates in Atlanta, one of the biggest VNR producers. “It would be very difficult for a station to produce the video footage we can provide. We do help them fill their programming times slots easily.”
As early as 1994, Nielsen Media Research was reporting that 80 percent of U.S. news directors were airing VNRs several times a month.
“When I was reporter, most of the VNRs came in by mail or by courier, not by satellite feed,’ recalled Deborah Potter, a former CBS news reporter and now executive director of the Washington, D.C-based News Lab, a nonprofit resource for television and radio.
“Over the years, VNRs have become more sophisticated, and it’s become difficult to tell them apart from the videos that stations or networks produce.”
Barbara Cochran, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Radio and Television News Directors Association and Foundation, believes that the media’s use of VNRs has been overblown.
“Our studies have shown that very little VNR footage is used in news programming, and when it is, the footage is usually an excerpt, and it’s identified,” Cochran said.
But one study of 39,911 television stations conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that from 1998 to 2002, the percentage of “feed” material from outside sources rose from 14 percent to 23 percent of all reports.
Media analysts attribute the VNR’s heavy and widespread use to a variety of factors — media consolidation, budget cuts and expanded round-the-clock news coverage — that have forced broadcast media to rely increasingly on prepackaged news.
“As media consolidation continues, the big media conglomerates are cutting costs and putting fewer resources into reporting,” said Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. “The ax has fallen on producers and other media professionals whose job it is to fill the newscast time. That’s created a big hole that VNRs have helped to fill.”
Media analysts note that with media consolidation, TV stations —especially in smaller markets — are under immense pressure from their owners to increase profits. The stations are expected to add more programming to achieve higher profit goals, but they must do it without hiring more reporters.
Today, nearly every TV station in the country has a satellite, noted Candace White, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Tennessee.
“The technology has made it easy for VNRs to be distributed and for broadcast stations, no matter where they are located, to use them,” White said.
White co-authored a report for PRSA titled “How video news releases are used in television broadcasts.” The report found that corporate VNRs with a sales pitch were used the least, while VNRs dealing with health and safety were used the most.
“Our research shows that more credit is due to the news producers that select the video for airing,” White said. “For the most part, they are able to weed out the ones that are just commercials for their sponsors.”
The PR industry has produced studies that support White’s research. In May 2004, for instance, Douglas Simon, president of DS Simon Productions Inc. – which produces VNRs — told the Senate Science and Transportation Committee that his company had surveyed 132 broadcast producers and journalists on their use of VNRs.
“Eighty percent of them told us that they will not use a story if the sponsor is not revealed,” Simon said.
But a study conducted by The Project for Excellence in Journalism and researchers at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., contradicts these findings. Few TV stations using VNRs identify their source for viewers, the study found. The researchers surveyed local TV news directors in 2001 and 2002, asking them if they used VNRs, and, if so, if they identify their source. According to the study, 60 percent of the news directors said they never use VNRs or use them sometimes without attribution. Ten percent said they always identify the source of the VNR, while 30 percent show VNRs but disclose the source “occasionally, rarely or never. “
PR industry professionals say their companies clearly identify a VNR’s source when they send it out to the media.
“The VNR has been in the news a lot in the past year, and there has been a lot criticism of its use,” Goforth said. “Networks are looking at VNRs more closely to see where they are coming from. That’s not a bad thing. But we clearly identify every VNR we send out, and we encourage stations to call us for more information.”
White said her research confirms Goforth’s disclaimer.
“The PR industry realizes it’s a good business to be up front and identify the source of their VNRs,” she said. “The problem is that many broadcast stations, for whatever reason, don’t pass this information on to their viewers.”
With VNR controversy intensifying, the Federal Communications Commission has stepped in and put broadcasters and cable operators on notice that they must identify the material’s source when using VNRs. Moreover, if the VNR is longer than five minutes, the broadcast must make a sourcing announcement at the material’s start and end. Citing the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC notice mandated that the new rules “impose a greater obligation of disclosure in connection with political materials and program matter dealing with controversial issues.”
Supporters and critics of VNRs complain that the FCC’s mandate has further muddled the debate.
“The FCC didn’t define what it means by ‘controversial,’ ” Farsetta said. “I would consider the Bush administration’s VNRs that promote its Medicare drug benefit plan controversial, but it’s unclear whether that use violates the FCC’s new rules.”
The Center for Media and Democracy believes the FCC’s role is absolutely critical. The vast majority of VNRs are commissioned by private entities, yet Congress can require only government-funded VNRs to be labeled or otherwise disclosed to the viewing audience. However, because the FCC has authority over all licensed broadcasters, it can require broadcasters to notify audiences when VNRs are aired.
“The Center for Media and Democracy has urged the FCC to do just that — require on-screen disclosure of VNRs because we believe the audience has the right to know where their news is coming from,” Farsetta said. “How else can citizens evaluate the information they receive, if they’re not told of its source?”
“The public has a right to know who paid for a VNR, and it’s the media’s ethical responsibility that they do.”
Ron Chepesiuk, a South-Carolina based journalist, is a Fulbright Scholar and author of Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel.