By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Ginny Underwood, executive director of UMTV, the television service of the United Methodist Church, is frustrated. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the church decided there was a need for positive and uplifting stories to complement the roster of grim fare dominating newscasts. So the church created UMTV, which each week feeds two fully produced 90-second stories through the Pathfire digital news system, which gets them straight into many newsrooms.
The reports profile, for example, retirees in Texas who make low-tech personal transportation devices for people who have lost their legs, or a teen who was helped in his recovery from a serious accident after he received a “prayer pager,” which would vibrate every time someone in the community said a prayer for him.
“They are stories of people making a difference, of social justice issues that need to be brought to the forefront, giving attention to people that are not able to speak for themselves all the time,” Ms. Underwood said. There’s no proselytizing, but each story has some United Methodist connection, which is usually mentioned once in the story.
Five years later, some stations are big fans of the reports, which can also be seen on the UMTV.org Web site. But many other stations flat-out reject UMTV, deeming the reports video news releases, said Ms. Underwood.
UMTV rejects the VNR label. “I’m not sure where the red flags are,” Ms. Underwood said, noting, “We have full disclosure on who we are and what we produce.” The reports, she said, “are legitimate news stories, not proselytizing, not selling. I believe if news directors had these story options, they would cover them. The 24/7 news operation is difficult to feed, and stations don’t have the luxury to staff them.”
Some stations, even while praising and taking advantage of the UMTV reports, said they need to be treated just like any other material pitched by a public relations operation.
Maria Arita, an anchor at CBS station KTVT-TV in Fort Worth, Texas, and the station’s religion reporter, said she will find a UMTV report relevant to her audience and adapt it for her use some two to three times per year. And she always attributes the material she does use, she said.
“I never take and use them in their entirety,” she said in an interview. “I have to have full editorial control.” If a story piques her interest, she will redo the interviews, find a local angle or shoot additional material, all with the blessing and cooperation of UMTV. She double-checks the facts the church provides, she said, and has found the reports to be error-free. “I trust them now,” she said, and she praises the reports for “having their finger on the pulse” of issues of concern to the public.
“The religion beat goes to the core of people,” she said. “I think every station should have a religion beat, an environmental beat. We’re supposed to be informing people about how they live their lives.”
Stations have reason to be wary of VNRs. The Federal Communications Commission last month queried 77 stations about whether they had properly labeled VNR material before airing it. The inquiry came after a Center for Media and Democracy study in April alleged widespread use-without labeling-by stations of VNRs produced by corporations and trade organizations. Stations have also been criticized in recent years for airing unlabeled reports produced by federal governmental agencies.
FCC regulations require that VNR material be labeled, with the risk of hefty fines for not doing so. An FCC spokeswoman said the commission had no comment on whether the UMTV videos fall under labeling requirements.
The Radio-Television News Directors Association’s VNR guidelines are equivocal on material provided by religious groups, noting, “News managers and producers should consider how video/audio released from groups without a profit or political agenda, such as nonprofit, charitable and educational institutions, will be used in newscasts, if at all. … Has it been issued to be aired locally and credited to the issuing organizations? Will viewers find it to be useful information?”
Produced and distributed for a budget of about $400,000 annually, the UMTV reports are downloaded for air from Pathfire some 600 to 700 times each year, Ms. Underwood said, a figure that UMTV tracks as an indication of usage. The “prayer pager” story, she said, aired on 14 stations, and UMTV estimated it reached about 1.4 million people.
Some stations said they had no problem using the reports as is, noting that the church reference is made clear in the stories.
Shan Whiston, the 6 p.m. anchor at Quincy, Ill., NBC affiliate WGEM-TV, used the UMTV reports regularly for five years when she was producing and anchoring the station’s noon newscast.
The stories, she said, were well-written and well-produced, and viewers, she said, expressed “a real hunger for positive stories, with everything going on in the world.” From UMTV’s post-Hurricane Katrina stories to a story about a Thanksgiving soup kitchen that became a weekly venture, they were “all good,” she said. “They were just so positive, about people helping people.”
Ms. Whiston said her concern was that other denominational groups in the community would object to the focus on Methodists, but she said she received no complaints. “I think viewers realize, again, it’s all about helping people,” she said.
For some producers, the bigger issue is the dearth of positive religion stories. Ms. Whiston noted that NBC News Channel, the affiliate news feed service, sent a religion-themed story once a week for a while and WGEM used them regularly, but the reports stopped when the correspondent moved on.
Ms. Arita of KTVT said she occasionally uses material provided by PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” as source material as well.
Stations that don’t want to use the UMTV reports as is should still “be in a relationship with us to get story ideas,” said Ms. Underwood. “There is such a stigma against working with faith organizations. Faith is a foundational part of our lives which newsrooms neglect,” she said.
UMTV is looking at expanding the operation to include cellphone technology, Google and Yahoo video, MySpace.com and other multimedia platforms. “We believe it’s making a positive impact in the world, and that’s why we’re doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. In addition, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are talking with UMTV about putting content on the UMTV service.