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From AJR,   June/July 2004

Virtual News Reports   

CNN and local TV stations were guilty accomplices in allowing a government-produced VNR on the air.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


Poor Karen Ryan. She was only doing her job. Poor CNN. It was just an innocent distributor. Poor local TV stations. They were deceived by everyone involved. And needless to say, none of them was to blame.

The truth is, there's plenty of blame to go around in the aftermath of the Medicare video news release (VNR) flap. Journalism groups slammed the Bush administration for "deceptive practices" after the disclosure in March that the Department of Health and Human Services had released a taxpayer-funded VNR--made to resemble a news report--touting its new Medicare plan. "Outside the bounds of ethical behavior," huffed the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

But using VNRs to push products and policies has been common practice for two decades or more. Thousands of these videos are produced every year. Groups from county governments to multinational corporations rely on VNRs to get their message out. It's often cheaper than buying advertising and more credible to the audience.

The Medicare "story" also sounded like news. Narrated by a former journalist who now has her own public relations firm, the video ended with a standard news sign-off: "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting." But she wasn't reporting. She was reading a script prepared by the government, a one-sided account that never would have made the grade in Journalism 101. Ryan has used that same language dozens of times in corporate VNRs, "reporting" on products like FluMist and credit cards. She may see nothing wrong with that, but it's a tactic obviously designed to mislead.

The deception couldn't succeed, however, without an accomplice or two. That's where CNN and the local stations come in. Back when VNRs arrived in newsrooms by mail, it was difficult to confuse them with legitimate news. These days, video news releases are fed to stations by distribution services like CNN Newsource, which charge VNR producers a fee for the privilege.

Some news directors say that mixing genuine news footage with PR pieces on the same feed is a recipe for trouble. Bob Longo, news director at Pittsburgh's WTAE, which aired the Medicare video twice, went even further. "It is troubling, deceptive and disturbing," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "The piece was camouflaged deceptively as a CNN piece."

CNN insists the Medicare segment was clearly identified on the feed as a news release. But the network has since agreed to change the way it handles VNRs, by separating them from news stories on the feed, and letting stations opt out from receiving VNRs. But that doesn't solve the real problem.

The reason more than 40 stations aired the government's Medicare video is that many television newsrooms are so thinly staffed they can't possibly produce enough news stories of their own to fill all the hours of programming on their schedules. No one should be surprised to learn that VNRs can and do get on the air as "news helper." Mike Cutler, news director at WTVF in Nashville, admitted as much to the Tennessean newspaper. The station aired the Medicare video once during its three-hour morning program. Cutler said: "I suspect that the producer of the 7 a.m. hour probably said, 'Well let me see if there's something fresh on the feeds that we haven't already run in the last two hours' and, in searching, said, 'Well, here's a Medicare story. Let me plug that in,' and didn't look at the header that probably said VNR."

The Society of Professional Journalists accused stations that aired the video of "professional laziness." But what's at play here isn't laziness but frenzy, as producers scramble to fill the newshole with just about anything.

Some news managers see a silver lining in the VNR flap. "When these things happen you have to use the opportunity to educate the staff," says Karla Stanley, news director at WTVQ in Lexington, Kentucky, whose station used the Medicare piece but now, as a policy, won't even take VNRs from the satellite feeds. "We had serious conversations in our news meetings about what VNRs are and discussed it with every producer." Good idea. Newsrooms clearly need to train their staffs to be just as skeptical of what's on the feed as they would be of any other self-serving PR ploy.

That's not to say that all VNRs are worthless. Some provide stations with newsworthy video they couldn't get any other way--like crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or b-roll of a new medical procedure. But viewers deserve to know if what they're seeing is a handout from a commercial or government source. If a station is going to use any part of a VNR, even just the video, it needs to disclose where the material came from, either in the script or in a graphic.

Adopting that policy would have spared some newsrooms a lot of embarrassment. Imagine, if you will, your local TV anchor introducing the Karen Ryan Medicare video as "a production of the Department of Health and Human Services." Can't imagine that? Didn't think so.


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