Latest VNR flap puts onus on media

VNRs are under fire again, but it's the stations airing them - not the producers - now being scrutinized

VNRs are under fire again, but it's the stations airing them - not the producers - now being scrutinized

Just over a year ago, the world outside of the PR and media industries was introduced to the concept of the VNR in dramatic fashion. A front-page story in the Sunday New York Times examined how the Bush administration was using the decades-old PR tool to promote some of its policies and agendas, and exposed how several VNR packages had run without proper disclosure.

The article sparked outrage from watchdog groups, a "reminder" from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broadcasters, and action from Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Last May, those senators introduced the Truth in Broadcasting Act, designed to codify what many VNR producers insisted was already being done: proper and prominent labeling of government sponsorship of VNRs.

One year later, the bill still sits on the Senate floor. And until a few weeks ago, the VNR issue seemed relegated to the junkyard of stalled bills and abandoned issues.

Now, a report issued April 6 by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has dusted it off again, this time focusing on corporate VNRs. The result of a 10-month investigation, the report revealed that 77 local TV stations around the US had presented corporate VNRs without disclosing to their viewers that corporations provided the footage or, in some cases, complete story packages, to the stations.

Surprisingly, some of the stations were in large markets, including LA and New York, which reportedly do not use VNRs as frequently as smaller-market stations. Also, while the CMD's mission is to expose "PR spin and propaganda," it appears the VNR industry is not the target so much as the TV stations and holding companies.

"We looked at hundreds of VNRs, and without exception, all were very clearly marked in terms of the funding source," says Daniel Price, research consultant for the CMD. "We find it really hard to believe that the stations were somehow misled into thinking that they were running anything other than a corporate-funded VNR. The PR companies were all straightforward with the stations. It's the stations that were not straightforward with their viewers."

And at least one station has apologized publicly for that indiscretion. WNEP-TV, an ABC affiliate in Northeastern Pennsylvania, issued an apology shortly after the CMD revealed that a report it aired on February 22, 2006 - one that also ran on CBS-2 in New York - was not properly disclosed. In a statement to PRWeek, CBS-2 noted its policy dictates that "the station must clearly disclose on the air the origin of the information and identify all material provided by outside sources. The policy wasn't adhered to in this particular case."

And individual newsroom policy isn't the only thing that requires stations to disclose that information. The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTDNA) also has guidelines and reminded its members to review and strengthen their policies on the matter.

Technically, the FCC requires disclosure only if the station is being paid to air the information, which isn't the case with VNRs. Still, commissioner Jonathan Adelstein held a press conference with CMD the day the report was released.

"It certainly appears that the industry is incapable of effectively regulating itself," he noted in a statement. "It is now incumbent on the FCC to take the necessary steps to protect the viewing public."

However, many feel that government regulation of news broadcasts is a step in the wrong direction. The RTNDA has already cautioned against FCC involvement.

"Our job... as PR pros is to fully disclose the source and client for every project we handle," notes Larry Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink. "It is the media's right to do whatever it wishes to do. That's called the First Amendment."

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