In Depth

Questioning Authority

Journalists Must Clearly Indicate Sources of ‘News’

Everybody does it. Whether they’re selling baby food or Botox, vaccines or vacation spots, it’s common practice for newsrooms and marketers to get in bed together. In fact, they’ve already been in bed together for several years. It saves time for news editors and makes life easier for everyone involved.

The first problem for viewers is they can’t always tell where the news ends and the commercial begins.

Socorro Serrano, Kaiser Permanente’s manager for media relations in Southern California, said the hospital does provide video news releases to television news outlets, but adds that the hospital is always identified.

“If there are quintuplets born in Baldwin Park and a cameraman can’t get there to film them,” she said, “we will produce a package of the quints with close-ups, and we provide that to journalists. We have a new hospital opening in Panorama City, and we’ll set up some interviews and produce a tape that we’ll provide to journalists. But there’s always a little bug at the beginning or the end of the B-roll that says ‘Courtesy of’ or ‘Provided by Kaiser Permanente.’”

The second problem for viewers? A lot of newsrooms take that little bug off.

The Center for Media and Democracy, along with Free Press, last year filed three complaints with the Federal Communications Commission over the airing of unattributed VNRs by television stations. The complaints followed earlier filings with the FCC against broadcast stations and Comcast Cable.

Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy and co-author (with Daniel Price) of the special report “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed,” for the CMD Web site, noted, “There’s a huge difference between promoting your product or service and getting information out there. That’s one reason we’ve campaigned so hard for full disclosure."

“There are always products being promoted,” she added, “and sometimes those products have already been questioned as to whether or not they’re effective.”

This might hold particularly true in the field of medical care, where new surgical devices and powerful drugs are heavily marketed and sometimes—generally after severe side effects or even deaths occur with some patients—end up being withdrawn from the market.

Current FCC regulations state that no sponsorship identification is required when material is furnished to the broadcast licensee “without charge or at a nominal charge.”

In her seminal piece “The Epidemic” for the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, documented numerous instances of unattributed hospital VNRs airing as part of local news segments.

But even though some reporters and news editors don’t like the idea of using VNRs, budget cuts have taken a heavy toll on broadcast and print media nationwide, and television reporters, in health care as in other fields, are being pressed to deliver more content.

“I’ve had people who work in newsrooms tell me off the record that their editors will tell them to use more VNRs,” Ms. Farsetta said. “[The editors are] saying, ‘You need to do more, and these packages can help you.’”

In January 2006, two months after a re-voiced VNR aired on KCBS-2 News in Los Angeles, Nancy Bauer Gonzales, news director of KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, released a memo to employees that stated in part, “Every piece of video which airs on our television stations … must be closely scrutinized. This means researching and asking questions. If feed information is not clear, or if you have a question, make phone calls to determine the origin of the video.”

But the Center for Media and Democracy’s sourcewatch.org site notes the Writers Guild of America, East, which represents KCBS-2 and KCAL-9 newswriters, issued a report last year, at a time when the newswriters were working without a contract, stating, “Three months later, over 50 writers and producers … were laid off, which placed new strains on the newsroom’s capacity. Staff now reports that VNRs and file video of previously used VNRs are again appearing in their newscasts, though less frequently.”

Ms. Farsetta noted journalists have to be “smart news consumers. You have to look at multiple sources and ask who might benefit from this. Who’s contributing to the company that released it?”

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, which tracked 36 VNRs and their use by TV stations in a 10-month survey, 69 stations aired at least one VNR between June 2005 and March 2006, “a significant number, given that CMD was only able to track a small percentage of the VNRs streaming into newsrooms at that time.” And according to Nielsen Media, those 69 stations broadcast to 52% of the U.S. population.

The center also noted in its “Fake News” report that of the 87 VNR broadcasts that were documented, not one station disclosed the sponsors behind the news package—although one Virginia station did identify the PR firm, if not the client, that produced the video. Stations also added their own “graphics and overlays” and in more than 60% of the broadcasts, “a station reporter or anchor re-voiced the VNR,” sometimes without changing a word from the original script.

In its public notice released in April 2005 regarding the use of VNRs, the FCC noted “the danger that groups advocating ideas or promoting candidates, rather than consumer goods, might be particularly inclined to attempt to mask their sponsorship in order to increase the apparent credibility of their messages.”

Further complicating the issue of sponsorship identification is the FCC’s mandate that “for political or controversial programming that is five minutes or less in duration, only one announcement must be made, at the beginning or the end of the material.” Since many VNRs are designed to fill only a brief news segment, many of them would run under five minutes anyway.

And what constitutes a controversial issue? Pain medication for arthritis and hormone replacement therapy might be considered standard medical practice by some doctors, while others, citing the risk of serious side effects for long-term use of painkillers or HRT, try to steer their patients toward more natural or alternative therapies. And because so many VNRs are produced by corporations or manufacturers, very few are going to present more than one point of view.

“There are some VNRs where the person is being presented as an expert,” Ms. Farsetta said, “but what does that even entail?”

The Center for Media and Democracy has recommended that the FCC require all sponsored video packages to show continuous, frame-by-frame identification of the source, as well as requiring verbal identification of that source either at the beginning or end of the footage.

The FCC has yet to mandate that change, but a statement by Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein included as part of the FCC’s 2005 public notice reads in part, “It’s high time for the FCC to remind broadcasters and others subject to our sponsorship identification rules that they have a legal obligation to let their viewers know when they run stories from someone else. People have a legal right to know the real source when they see something on TV that is disguised as ‘news.’ We are already seeing public confidence in the news dropping quickly, and this step should help restore confidence.”

In these days of product placement, no one really thinks the sponsorship packages are going to go away. “It’s the way newsroom budgets are structured now,” Ms. Farsetta said, “and VNRs are an integral part of that.”

The FCC has proposed fines totaling $20,000 for cable giant Comcast for five VNRs that were aired by its cable channel CN8. Comcast has appealed.