A new research study called Fake TV News was released last week by the Center for Media and Democracy taking aim at the Video News Release, a product used by public relations organizations to get the word out on television news.
The study followed 36 video news releases (watch them all here) and analyzed how they were used by media newsrooms. To say the least, the report was extremely biased, using phrasing that implies wongdoing and discounts any value of the VNR medium.
The Public Relations Society of America’s advocacy committee responded by making its board members available for comment and by sending a letter to the FCC, which also included a response to comments by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, who last week told publishers at the Newspaper Association of America's (NAA) annual convention that he is committed to overturning a ban on same-market cross-ownership.
The State of Mainstream Media
Today, the mainstream news media faces many challenges from all sides. First, as ownership of media becomes more consolidated, there is extra pressure to make ever accelerated profits for the shareholders, always a dicey proposition in any news organization. This pressure is compounded since these profits are usually squeezed out of the workforce itself, giving the media less resources to report stories as deeply or completely as it should.
On top of that is the intense competition for reach, or eyeballs, from other mainstream news organizations as well as newcomers, such as blogs, podcasts and videocasts. Advertisers demand this reach in order to maximize investment, which is one of the reasons that cross-ownership has become a hot a topic and why resources, such as Video News Releases have become so attractive.
What It Means for PR
First of all, the Video News Release has been widely used since the ‘80s, so these are nothing new. I felt then, as I do now, that all the hype surrounding VNRs, especially after last year’s flap with VNRs sent out by the Bush Administration, is a little politically overblown. However, I recognize that with ever shrinking resources it has probably been more likelihood that mainstream media will air VNRs in their entirety.
I personally have never sent out a packaged VNR, I have always preferred to send B-Roll with fact sheets to highlight some news peg. However, I don’t think that VNRs are automatically “fake” news, and the Center for Media and Democracy calling it thus in broad strokes, without content analysis of its news value, is unhelpful to the cause of transparency, and is inflammatory and irresponsible.
I agree with PRSA’s position that the VNR must be delivered transparently and that the media must use them with attribution. Simply identifying someone as, “A representative from ABC company” would be sufficient. Likewise, news organizations should not pass off company representatives as an extension of their own staff, it is unethical.
In their letter to the FCC, PRSA makes clear that it will oppose any prescriptive requirement that would impede the free flow of information; however, they also advocate for rules that encourage transparency.
I think that commonsense must dictate the next steps by both the FCC and the communications community. In other words, let’s not “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
What do you think?