VNR Guidelines Issued in Time for Conference

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Just in time for its convention this week in Las Vegas, the Radio-Television News Directors Association last week released updated guidelines for the use of video news releases by broadcast journalists.

It’s an issue that’s particularly timely, given the findings earlier this year that some local broadcasters had aired video news releases produced by the Bush administration.

Many local stations are now making sure staffers brush up on VNR policies and know the rules regarding proper sourcing of VNRs. Even so, the main suppliers of both VNRs and B-roll footage-Medialink, PR Newswire and The NewsMarket-said their businesses have not been impacted by the heightened scrutiny VNRs have received in the last few months.

In fact, Laurence Moskowitz, president and CEO of Medialink, likens the response to the news of the government’s use of VNRs to the scene in “Casablanca” when Captain Renault says, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Of course, he isn’t shocked because he then asks for his winnings.

“It’s people discovering public relations exists, and it’s a $6 billion industry that’s been around since the dawn of time,” Mr. Moskowitz said. VNRs alone have been a staple of the industry for 50 years, he said.

Medialink produces and distributes about 1,000 VNRs worldwide each year. Mr. Moskowitz said they all arrive in newsrooms clearly identified with the name of the organization and contact information, in a text advisory and on the video itself. VNRs also contain a voice track that is separate from the natural soundtrack. Mr. Moskowitz said Medialink is delivering the same number of VNRs as it always has.

Specifying Material Sources

Many stations see the recent VNR controversy as a chance to reiterate their policies to staffers. The key to avoiding such embarrassment in the future is to implement a strict policy of specifying the source of material, they said.

“Stations were concerned that these releases were getting on the air without their realizing,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the RTNDA. “So there are a lot of conversations about policies and making sure everyone who works every shift knows about it.”

Since most stations receive VNRs on a satellite feed, it’s easier for one to slip through than when they were sent on videocassettes.

Landmark-owned CBS affiliate WTVF-TV in Nashville was one of the TV stations that aired a government VNR about Medicare last year without sourcing it. “When I learned of it, I had to make sure everyone knew the [policy],” said Mike Cutler, the station’s news director. ‘We had meetings about it and discussed it.”

He explained that the piece aired on the morning news because a younger producer working the overnight shift had not seen the disclaimer.

Stations must be vigilant, said Steve Schwaid, senior VP of news and programming for NBC Universal Television Stations Group. The station group has a strict policy of not airing self-contained VNRs, he said. “If it was an agency or [government] administration or whoever it was that put out a VNR, we would not use it on the air, period,” he said. “That’s not news gathering. We don’t know how it was sourced, where it came from, how they got the facts.”

Exceptions are made when a VNR contains video that NBC can’t get access to shoot on its own. For instance, a VNR on a new cancer drug might include footage from inside the manufacturing plant. If that were the case, the source of the footage would be identified on air. NBC would air only a portion of the video, not the VNR in its entirety. “We have always been very aggressive about making sure our stations are clear on it,” Mr. Schwaid said.

Being careless about a VNR can hurt a station, the RTNDA’s Ms. Cochran said. In the guidelines issued last week, RTNDA outlined the steps news managers and producers should take when considering the use of video from a non-editorial source.

They should determine whether the station can shoot the video itself or obtain it from a feed service. If not, they must decide how important the video is to the story and clearly identify the source of the video if it is used in the report. If a station uses an interview, it must determine whether it meets the same standards as if the interview had been conducted by a reporter. Also, the station should determine whether the material provided is one-sided or balanced.

Tom Doerr, news director at Viacom-owned KTVT-TV in Dallas, said his station will sometimes air videos from medical institutions in Texas or from NASA. But the station won’t run them as complete segments; it will simply pick a portion of the video and identify its source, he said.

“There are just some things as a news organization that we are not going to access without a VNR. All NASA video from a space shuttle is issued from NASA. There is no way for us to shoot shuttle video,” he said.

The NewsMarket has a policy requiring its clients-the companies and organizations that supply the video distributed to journalists-to also supply B-roll when they send out a VNR, said Shoba Purushothaman, CEO and co-founder of the NewsMarket.

Stations prefer B-roll, she said. Demand for B-roll is 10 times greater than the requests for VNRs, she said. “Any kind of VNR should be properly sourced and newsrooms should be willing to credit the source,” Ms. Purushothaman said.

While she has seen a slight drop-off in requests for VNRs in the past few months, the B-roll requests have increased. Through the end of March, The NewsMarket received 30,000 media requests for B-roll, compared with 70,000 in all of 2004. The NewsMarket provides video to more than 1,000 local stations.

PR Newswire offers about 100 VNRs and B-roll segments at any given time, said Larry Thomas, president of MultiVu, the PR Newswire company that provides VNRs. “We haven’t been impacted,” he said.