Fake 'News' to Abuse

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

One of my favorite sites, the Center for Media and Democracy (great for us media wonks), has named names of more than six dozen TV stations that use canned "video news releases" without identifying these as PR for a variety of corporations, like Capital One, Pfizer, General Motors, General Mills (you get the general idea). The report, Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed, includes such useful online features as a map (NB: file takes a while to load) showing the 77 stations using fake news, either VNRs, satellite media tours, or both. Highlights (or lowlights) include:

KOKH-25 in Oklahoma City, OK, a Fox station owned by Sinclair, aired six of the VNRs tracked by CMD, making it this report's top repeat offender. Consistently, KOKH-25 failed to provide any disclosure to news audiences. The station also aired five of the six VNRs in their entirety, and kept the publicist's original narration each time.

In three instances, TV stations not only aired entire VNRs without disclosure, but had local anchors and reporters read directly from the script prepared by the broadcast PR firm. KTVI-2 in St. Louis, MO, had their anchor introduce, and their reporter re-voice, a VNR produced for Masterfoods and 1-800 Flowers, following the script nearly verbatim. WBFS-33 in Miami, FL, did the same with a VNR produced for the "professional services firm" Towers Perrin. And Ohio News Network did likewise with a VNR produced for Siemens.

You'd think this would warrant wide coverage? Well, give credit to the New York Times for being one of the very few news organizations (outside the trade press) running with it and following up.

The [Federal Communications Commission has] warned that stations broadcasting video news releases "generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing." The agency threatened to fine violators and said it would study whether new regulations were needed.

Television news directors have resisted new rules. They have said that video news releases are an isolated problem. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, has compared the releases to the Loch Ness monster. "Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it," The Washington Times quoted her as saying last summer.

The FCC has rather a different view of the practice. Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein told the Times: "I'm stunned by the scope of what they found....I guess they found the Loch Ness monster."

NB: Fellow HuffPoster Robert Schlesinger has also discussed the report.