77 TV stations aired 'fake news reports'

Ron Brynaert
Published: Wednesday April 5, 2006

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A study by a group that monitors the media reveals that, over a ten month span, 77 television stations from all across the nation aired video news releases without informing their viewers even once that the reports were actually sponsored content, RAW STORY has found.

One "news report" that aired on three stations relied on a video news release (VNR) produced by a PR firm on behalf of General Motors which was even apparently based on a "false claim."

Center for Media and Democracy's Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed is "a multimedia report on television newsrooms' use of material provided by PR firms on behalf of paying clients," containing video footage of the 36 video news releases (VNRs) cited in the report, plus a map and spreadsheet of the stations cited.

General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One are among the companies who produced VNRs with the help of three PR firms, and "[m]ore than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety."

An Oklahoma City FOX station owned by Sinclair is pegged as the "report's top repeat offender," airing five VNRs in full on its news broadcasts, with "the publicist's original narration each time."

Three 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."

News broadcasts based on a General Motors VNR stand out in the report as a striking example of "fake news," not just because they were left largely unchanged when aired on stations in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

"GM, who introduced the first manufacturer web site in 1996, has recently lowered prices, in some cases by thousands of dollars, on all of their models as a direct result of the customers' ability to comparison shop on the Internet," Medialink's Kate Brookes "reported" in all three broadcasts.

But the Center for Media and Democracy blasts GM's "historical claim" as "fake."

"A simple dated search for "automotive web site" in the Nexis news database revealed a press release from August 1995 in which Volkswagen heralded the launch of their web portal," the report states. "It wasn't until February 1996 that General Motors announced gm.com in their own press release."

A comparison between the General Motors VNR and one of the news broadcasts can be seen at this link.

Last year the New York Times published an article called "Under Bush, a new age of prepackaged TV news" - written by David Barstow and Robin Stein - which reported on the stealthy use of VNRs created by government agencies that crept into network news broadcasts.

The Times revealed that even though Radio-Television News Directors Association's "code of ethics" specifies to "clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders," the Federal Communications Commission has "never disciplined a station for showing government-made news segments without disclosing their origin."

Last June, Chris Baker at the Washington Times reported that the Radio-Television News Directors Association "submitted a 13-page statement that said few TV stations air VNRs, and those that do almost always identify the source" to the Federal Communications Commission. The statement drew from an "informal survey of 100 members" because, as the president of the Association told the Washington Times, "concrete data" was "hard to come by."

An article in Thursday's Times by Barstow (New York Times registered link) indicates that the Center "presented its findings yesterday to F.C.C. officials, including Jonathan S. Adelstein, a commissioner who has criticized video news releases."

Impressed by the "scope of what they found," Adelstein told the Times that it was a "disgrace to American journalism," and proof of "potentially major violations" of F.C.C. rules.