Public interest groups continue critique of VNRs

WASHINGTON: Two non-profit public interest groups have filed a complaint with the FCC requesting an investigation of broadcasters airing video news releases without proper disclosure.

WASHINGTON: Two non-profit public interest groups have filed a complaint with the FCC requesting an investigation of broadcasters airing video news releases without proper disclosure.

The Center for Media and Democracy, which regularly reports on alleged propaganda in the news, and Free Press, a group which aims to get the public involved in media policymaking, also presented the FCC with a petition containing the names of 40,000 concerned Americans.

The groups' complaint joins letters by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) asking that the FCC investigate broadcasters' responsibility for disclosure.

"The reaction to this VNR issue has been one of the most swift and intense that we've ever seen," said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, adding that it took only three days for the two groups to collect the 40,000 names.

As with recent government PR cases that have garnered media and congressional attention, the major issue here is one of disclosure.

"The problem for us is the use of unlabeled VNRs, no matter who provides them," said John Stauber, founder and executive director of The Center for Media and Democracy. "Whether it comes from the government, a corporation, or a non-profit, these video news releases should be labeled."

But some believe that oversight by the FCC could be a bad thing for the VNR industry. Although it is not likely, one concern is that broadcasters will become frustrated with any rules that are imposed and will stop using VNRs altogether, said Kevin Foley, president of KEF Media.

"We in the industry have to take that concern very seriously because it's our lifeblood," he said.

Doug Simon, president of DS Simon Productions, said the PR industry's failure to adequately respond to previous issues, such as the controversy involving Ketchum and Armstrong Williams, is part of the reason so much attention is being paid to this issue now.

"If this becomes an FCC issue limiting our rights to disseminate information to the public, I think to some degree PR will only have itself to blame," Simon said.

Foley said that his corporate clients have been unaffected by the controversy and that he still believes it would not have any long-term effect.

"I think it's shined a glaring light on our industry, perhaps unfairly so," he said. "It implies something sinister is going out when in fact it's not."

Silver and Stauber said the next step is to organize those who have signed the petition into groups that will visit local TV stations and meet with news directors to learn about their VNR policies.

"We want agreements with individual stations to disclose VNRs now," Silver said. "News is supposed to be fair, balanced, and objective."

Stauber agreed. "They're not news stories. Journalists produce news stories," he said. "Journalists who've moved on to PR produce video news releases."

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