Broadcasters continue to use video news releases without disclosing sponsorship, despite a Federal Communications Commission warning against the practice and an ongoing investigation into it, a new report alleged. Two FCC commissioners called for more stringent regulatory oversight and action.
“Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs,” compiled by lefty watchdog groups Free Press and Center for Media & Democracy, claimed that from April through October, “46 television stations … aired corporate video news releases, or VNRs,” which CMD describes as “pre-packaged broadcast segments designed to look like television news stories, that are funded by and scripted for corporate or government clients.”
VNRs, derisively referred to as “fake news,” are useful for both broadcasters and the sponsor behind the VNR, reps for FP and CMD said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. Sponsors get their product or service favorably covered as if by a legit news report, and broadcasters get a “news” segment that costs them nothing to produce.
FCC rules require disclosure of any sponsorship. Failure to disclose can result in fines totaling $350,000 and one year in prison, FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said.
Report is a follow-up to a similar study CMD and FP released in April that found 77 stations had broadcast VNRs without disclosing sponsorship. That report led to an FCC investigation into the practice. Adelstein said he could only state the investigation is “still ongoing.”
In April 2005, the commission issued a warning to broadcasters reminding them of their obligations under FCC sponsorship identification rules.
Adelstein added that if the allegations are true, broadcasters are continuing to show disrespect to both “viewers and the FCC. When the flock ignores the shepherd, it’s time to build a fence” — in the form of stiff penalties, he said.
The FCC has yet to issue any fines for failing to disclose VNRs.
Joining Adelstein was his Democratic colleague, commissioner Michael Copps, who noted the study points out 80% of stations implicated are owned by media congloms. Copps, who has made limiting media consolidation a priority, called on the FCC to proceed with even more caution and scrutiny in its current review of media ownership rules, saying the commission needs to determine whether more consolidation leads to increased VNR use and abuse.
“Every citizen has a right to know where his or her news is coming from,” Copps said. Is it real news, he asked, “or has it been manufactured for profit?”
One VNR, aired by WTOK-11 in Meridian, Miss., ridiculed the claim that increased hurricane activity is linked to global warming. A lobbying-PR outfit that reps ExxonMobil underwrote the VNR, a fact not disclosed.
The Radio-Television News Directors Assn. said in a statement: “While RTNDA has not yet fully analyzed CMD’s latest report, from what we have been able to learn thus far, certain of the allegations regarding VNR use are inaccurate or represent isolated incidents made in error and at variance with station policies that are consistent with RTNDA’s guidelines.”