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A new study released Thursday by the Center for Media and Democracy found at least 77 TV stations around the country have aired corporate-sponsored video news releases over the past 10 months. The report accuses the TV stations of actively disguising the content, which has been paid for by companies like General Motors, Panasonic and Pfizer, to make it appear to be their own reporting.
The stations are scattered throughout 30 states and are affiliated with all of the major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. And many of the stations are owned by some of the country's largest media companies, including Clear Channel, News Corp, Viacom, the Tribune Co. and Sinclair Broadcast.
The study by the Center for Media and Democracy is called "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed". The authors of the report charge that these TV stations actively disguise the corporate-sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting.
Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed
Although the number of media formats and outlets has exploded in recent years, television remains the dominant news source in the United States. More than three-quarters of U.S. adults rely on local TV news, and more than 70 percent turn to network TV or cable news on a daily or near-daily basis, according to a January 2006 Harris Poll. The quality and integrity of television reporting thus significantly impacts the public's ability to evaluate everything from consumer products to medical services to government policies.
To reach this audience—and to add a veneer of credibility to clients' messages—the public relations industry uses video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are pre-packaged "news" segments and additional footage created by broadcast PR firms, or by publicists within corporations or government agencies. VNRs are designed to be seamlessly integrated into newscasts, and are freely provided to TV stations. Although the accompanying information sent to TV stations identifies the clients behind the VNRs, nothing in the material for broadcast does. Without strong disclosure requirements and the attention and action of TV station personnel, viewers cannot know when the news segment they're watching was bought and paid for by the very subjects of that "report."
- VNR use is widespread
CMD found 69 TV stations that aired at least one VNR from June 2005 to March 2006.
- VNRs are aired in TV markets of all sizes
TV stations often use VNRs to limit the costs associated with producing, filming and editing their own reports.
- TV stations don't disclose VNRs to viewers
Of the 87 VNR broadcasts that CMD documented, not once did the TV station disclose the client(s) behind the VNR to the news audience.
- TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reporting
In every VNR broadcast that CMD documented, the TV station altered the VNR's appearance.
- TV stations don't supplement VNR footage or verify VNR claims
While TV stations often edit VNRs for length, in only seven of the 87 VNR broadcasts documented by CMD did stations add any independently-gathered footage or information to the segment.
- The vast majority of VNRs are produced for corporate clients
Of the hundreds of VNRs that CMD reviewed for potential tracking, only a few came from government agencies or non-profit organizations.
- Satellite media tours may accompany VNRs
Broadcast PR firms sometimes produce both VNRs and satellite media tours (SMTs) for clients.