Paul Holmes

'Times' article confirms belief that ethical questions should be addressed to the press

'Times' article confirms belief that ethical questions should be addressed to the press

PR people are now presumably ruing the day they complained that The New York Times didn't provide enough coverage of the PR industry.

A month or so after the paper's Sunday business section devoted a front-page story to the industry's ethical troubles, the Times more recently devoted a lengthy piece to the decades-old use of VNRs.

Almost a week later, the story ("Under Bush a New Era of Pre-Packaged TV News") was still number one on the Times' list of most e-mailed articles and had spawned a website - www. - that allows visitors to e-mail the media, the Federal Communications Commission, or the Justice Department with complaints.

I'm getting tired of saying this (I suspect you're getting tired of reading it), but as far as I'm concerned, if a newspaper's editor is so lazy (or short-staffed) that he lifts a paragraph or two directly from a press release, that's an issue between him and his readers. If the producer of a news show is so lazy (or short-staffed) that she uses footage from a VNR, that's an issue between her and her viewers.

In fact, the Times article reinforced my belief that the ethical questions should all be addressed to the media rather than the PR industry. VNRs are clearly labeled and sourced when they reach the newsrooms to which they are addressed. That information is stripped out by producers, whose intention appears to be to deceive viewers or at the very least hide the truth from them. In one case cited by the Times, a VNR from the Agriculture Department, in which the narrator clearly identified herself as "Pat O'Leary, reporting for the US Department of Agriculture," was edited by the syndicated farm news program AgDay so that she was introduced as "AgDay's Pat O'Leary."

Almost all news stations that use VNRs would appear to be in violation of the Radio-Television News Directors Association's code of ethics, which says broadcasters should "clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders."

There is also, by the way, a law (the Radio Act) that forbids broadcasters from airing government-produced programming without proper disclosure. The law could certainly be read to include VNRs, even though the government pays only for their production, not their placement.

This issue won't go away any time soon, and communicators should ensure they are acting ethically and openly on behalf of all clients. They might also wish to engage the media in a dialogue about what's appropriate on-air disclosure - and push for higher standards than we see today. The growing perception that news is fake or phony will make PR people's work a lot harder in the long run.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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