By Debra Kaufman
More than 25,000 journalists in the United States wholeheartedly agree: Video news releases-essentially promotional videos crafted to look like news-aren’t news. “I think they’re a danger to society,” said AHCJ board member and independent journalist Andrew Holtz. “They’re ads, and they have no place in news.”
Mr. Holtz lists three sources of VNRs that make the rounds of TV newsrooms: “Ones put out by private companies that are entirely advertisements. Those put out by do-gooder groups of foundations that have advocacy interests. And ones from the government, in the name of the people, sometimes with valuable information and sometimes to bring glory to the agency putting it out. But they’re all meant to sell something, whether it’s information, products or services.”
In March 2004 The New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had created video news releases-complete with a “reporter” anchoring the piece-promoting the new Medicare law as a boon to the elderly, and all hell broke out. Within days Mr. Holtz, then president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, led the group’s board of directors in issuing a statement condemning the HHS “news” releases. Within a day, 20 additional journalism organizations joined the AHCJ.
At the time the HHS saw “no distinction between a video news release and a printed news release … even though the videos about changes to Medicare were edited and produced to look like news reports,” a spokesperson for the HHS said. But on May 20, 2004, the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), an investigative arm of Congress, disagreed, stating that the Bush administration had violated federal law by producing and disseminating these television news segments, calling them a form of “covert propaganda” because the government was not identified as the source of the materials. By then the VNRs had been broadcast by at least 40 television stations in 33 markets.
VNRs are far from dead, but television station management and reporters of all stripes are more sensitized to the pitfalls, with some TV newsrooms completely banning their use and others dissecting them for bits of photography and quotes for their own reporting. But not all stations avoid them.
“The economics are too enticing for news departments,” Mr. Holtz said. “If someone hands you a well-produced package with everything you need, ready to go, and it’s free-it’s putting candy in front of a child and saying, ‘Here, have this.’ Unfortunately, too many stations are unable to resist.”
“These [VNRs] aren’t cheap to produce, but the companies hiring them think they’re worth the money,” Mr. Holtz said. “I think it’s sad that news departments won’t invest in paying crews and reporters to get the news on their own. They’re allowing companies and advocacy groups to spend thousands of dollars to produce stories that are in their own interest.”