Recent criticism of the Department of Health and Human Services for using video news releases to promote changes in Medicare benefits are likely to reignite the old debate about the ethics of VNRs in general.Recent criticism of the Department of Health and Human Services for using video news releases to promote changes in Medicare benefits are likely to reignite the old debate about the ethics of VNRs in general. There are those in the journalistic community who profess horror at the use of corporate (or in this case political) b-roll by cash-strapped news organizations. In this case, they have allies in the political realm: "These materials are even more disturbing than the Medicare flier and advertisements," says Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, referring to administration materials that already had generated controversy. "The distribution of these videos is a covert attempt to manipulate the press." There are, in fact, two separate criticisms here: The first is that public funds are being used for political rather than educational purposes (the administration says the ads are designed to tell people about changes to Medicare, while critics say they cross the line into propaganda). The second is that by their natures, VNRs are inherently manipulative and deceitful. I'll skip the first issue for now, and focus on the second, which has broader implications. If there are ethical questions in the use of VNRs, they're questions for journalists, not PR people. As long as producers understand that they are receiving footage from a subjective party, they are in a position to evaluate that footage, apply their news judgment as they would to any story, and use the footage as they see fit. If they believe the story contained in the VNR has merit, they have every right to use it. (I know some people believe the source of the footage should be identified, and I don't object to that idea, though I don't think it's necessary, or any more necessary than explaining that a quote in a print story came from a news release rather than a personal interview.) The question for PR professionals is more of a pragmatic one than an ethical one. VNR producers must decide for themselves how one-sided or promotional they would like their footage to be. The more overtly promotional the VNR, the less likely it is to be used by any reputable news organization. I haven't seen the government's Medicare VNR in its entirety, but I've seen clips, and it is inconceivable to me that any credible news organization would run those portions of the VNR, except perhaps for the purposes of exposing the ineptitude of government propaganda. In fact, the coverage of the VNR as propaganda tool so far appears to outweigh actual airing of the VNR by a considerable margin - a fact that suggests the regulation of video news releases is best left to the market.
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