Fake TV News

Yesterday at class our instructor said something that was very interesting to me (well, among other things).  He described how nowadays whereas people like me, the viewer, might see commercials as interruptions in the programming, the TV network people probably see the programming as interruptions to the commercials.  This was a breathtaking, to say the least, revelation, because of its moral implications.  While I agree that networks have as its bottom-line the maximization of profits, I think we have to step back and ask “should that be okay to apply that principle to ALL TV broacasting?”  I mean, what are the moral implications of this?  In a Democracy, an informed citizenry is paramount-without it we are ripe for the picking of authoritarian despotic regimes. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think product placement in entertainment certainly serves its function and has its place, specially when the “product” is actually a positive message, like promoting recycling or human rights.  However, there is a BIG difference when you talk about entertainment (whose function it is to ENTERTAIN) and other broadcasts’ that are supposed to have a different function-like news segments that are supposed to INFORM and at the very least strive for some sort of objectivity (and yes, I realize pure objectivity is impossible to reach but that is irrelevant within the parameters of this discussion and should not be used as an excuse for NOT attempting to be objective as much as possible).

Sometimes, there are clear lines being crossed, specially with news casts.  A few years back, there were astounding revelations that some newscasts were deliberately manipulating the public into buying certain products.  In other words, they were trying to pass commercials as “news” segments.  In my opinion, such a use is just plain wrong, mainly because there is no disclosure telling you “okay, this is NOT a news segment but rather a type of commercial.”

Here is a report on what I am talking about:

Thursday, April 6th, 2006
Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed… How Corporate-Funded Propaganda Is Airing On Local Newscasts As “News”

Orginally appeared on:

http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/04/06/1432239

A new study being released today 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. In a broadcast exclusive we speak with the authors of the report and air examples of the video news releases. [includes rush transcript]

A new study being released today by the Center for Media and Democracy reveals that at least 77 TV stations around the country have been caught airing corporate-sponsored propaganda disguised as news news releases in the past 10 months. Companies funding the video news releases include General Motors, Intel and Pfizer.

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 Company and Sinclair Broadcast.

The study by the Center for Media and Democracy is called “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed” [Read Report]. 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.

Until now, television news directors have downplayed how often VNRs made it onto air. Last year Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, compared VNRs to the Loch Ness monster. She said “Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it.”

Today we are going to spend the hour looking at how fake news is making its way onto the airwaves of local newscasts. We will speak with the authors of the report, as well as a consultant who has appeared in several video news releases [See Part II of DN’s Fake TV News Special] and with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein [See Part III of DN’s Fake TV News Special] who has said he was stunned by the findings of Fake TV News report.

But first we will air some examples of how video news releases are used.

Four weeks ago, the Fox affiliate in South Bend Indiana aired a video news release produced by the PR company Medialink for General Motors. The video was narrated by Medialink’s Andrew Schmertz. When the VNR aired on March 16, the local anchor introduced Andrew as if he were a Fox reporter.

  • WSJV broadcast

That video news release aired on WSJV in South Bend Indiana. The station’s news director, Ed Kral, declined to join us on today’s program. He described it as an accident that the VNR aired as it did.

The same VNR aired on two other stations: KOSA Channel 7 in Odessa Texas and WWTV Channel 9 in Cadillac Michigan.

None of the three stations divulged to listeners that the feature was produced by Medialink and funded by General Motors. In fact, of the 87 VNR broadcasts documented in the Fake TV News study, not once did the TV station specifically disclose who funded the VNR to the news audience.

Medialink also produced a video news release about ethanol, funded by the company Siemans which supplies automation systems to two-thirds of the ethanol plants in the country. Medialink sent a publicist named Kate Brookes to Iowa to act like a reporter covering the story.

Here is part of the original Video News Release that was distributed by Medialink in January.

  • Video news release from Medialink

At least five stations then took that corporate-funded VNR and broadcasted it. KTNV Channel 13 in Las Vegas aired it on January 19th.

  • Watch broadcast from KTNV

That video news release is one of the 36 VNRs highlighted in the new study by the Center for Media and Democracy called Fake TV News. The authors of the study, Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, join us now in Washington for this broadcast exclusive interview. Welcome to Democracy Now!

  • Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. She is co-author of the report, “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed”
  • Daniel Price, co-author of the Center for Media and Democracy’s report “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed.”

RUSH TRANSCRIPT

This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
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AMY GOODMAN: Today, were going to spend the hour looking at how fake news is making its way onto the airwaves of local newscasts. Well speak with the authors of the report, as well as a consultant who has appeared in several video news releases. And well talk to F.C.C. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who says hes stunned by the findings of Fake TV News report.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But first, we will air some examples of how video news releases are used. Four weeks ago, the FOX affiliate in South Bend, Indiana, aired a video news release produced by the P.R. company Medialink for General Motors. The video was narrated by Medialinks Andrew Schmertz. When the VNR aired on March 16, a local anchor introduced Schmertz as if he were a FOX reporter.

FOX ANCHOR: Many of you know computers have changed our lives in so many ways, from entertainment to transportation. Theyve even affected jobs. FOXs Andrew Schmertz looks at one surprising career that has evolved along with the computer.

ANDREW SCHMERTZ: Are you looking for a great paying job where recruits are in high demand and theres no chance of the work being sent overseas? Who isn’t, right? Well, pay attention next time you take your car into the dealer for maintenance or repair.

AMY GOODMAN: That video news release aired on WSJV in South Bend, Indiana. The station’s news director, Ed Kral, declined to join us on today’s program. He described it as an accident that the VNR aired as it did. The same VNR aired on two other stations: KOSA Channel 7 in Odessa, Texas, and WWTV Channel 9 in Cadillac, Michigan. None of the three stations divulged to viewers that the feature was produced by Medialink and funded by General Motors. In fact, of the 87 video news release broadcasts documented in the Fake TV News study, not once did the TV station specifically disclose who funded the VNR to the news audience.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Medialink also produced a video news release about ethanol, funded by the company Siemens, which supplies automation systems to two-thirds of the ethanol plants in the country. Medialink sent a publicist named Kate Brookes to Iowa to act like a reporter covering the story. Here’s part of the original video news release that was distributed by Medialink in January.

KATE BROOKES: With this better market comes the need for greater efficiency at ethanol plants.

SPOKESPERSON: Automation technologies help the producers make ethanol more efficiently. As the demand for ethanol grows, the producers rely more and more on automation technologies to help them meet their goals in the industry.

AL JENTZ, Plant Manager, Amaizing Energy: The growth is phenomenal, and with the renewable fuel standard bill, we are looking at expanding this plant here hopefully within the next 12 to 18 months.

KATE BROOKES: To date there is more than a hundred ethanol plants here in the United States. But as the demand for renewable fuels continues to rise and as the technologies to help produce them continue to improve, its expected that number will grow, perhaps even double in the years ahead. I’m Kate Brookes.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was the video news release. At least five stations then took that corporate-funded VNR and broadcast it. KTNV Channel 13 in Las Vegas, aired it on January 19.

DAVID REISZ, Farmer: For our operations its like a dream come true, you know. We used to farm this ground where the plant sits, and it just makes a better market for our corn.

KATE BROOKES: To date there is more than a hundred ethanol plants here in the United States. But as the demand for renewable fuels continues to rise and as the technologies to help produce them continue to improve, its expected that number will grow, perhaps even double in the years ahead. I’m Kate Brookes.

AMY GOODMAN: That video news release is one of 36 VNRs highlighted in the new study by the Center for Media and Democracy. The report is called “Fake TV News. The authors of the study are Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price. They join us now in Washington for this broadcast exclusive. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DIANE FARSETTA: Thanks for having us.

DANIEL PRICE: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: Its good to have you with us, Diane and Daniel. Diane Farsetta, youre the senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, co-author of this report. Explain how — well, the subtitle of your study is how widespread and undisclosed this is.

DIANE FARSETTA: Well, we would say, as you mentioned earlier, there were 36 different video news releases that we tracked, in terms of how the television news rooms used those. We found 77 different stations total that aired those VNRs or related canned interviews called satellite media tours, including stations in the largest market. We saw 13 stations in the ten largest media markets in the United States. We added up what percentage of the U.S. population is in the broadcast area of those markets. Its something like 53% of the U.S. population. So that gives you a sense of how widespread it is. Undisclosed of the 98 different total broadcasts of fake news that we saw, not once did the station tell the viewing audience, This was funded by Siemens. This was funded by Pfizer. And that’s what we see in terms — but that’s what were saying would be meaningful disclosure. We saw two instances of partial disclosure, but the clients were not named in those cases.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Diane, were you able to detect any trends or patterns in these VNRs? Were they being fed by the major networks to the local affiliates? Were they actually just being taken by the different affiliates? I was most surprised by the fact that you found quite a bit in the big cities, because you would normally think that the smaller cities, the TV stations that don’t have very much news staff, would be the ones more likely to run these kinds of prepackaged video releases.

DIANE FARSETTA: That’s right. And that also gives you a sense of how widespread the practice is, that even the most resource rich — you know, relatively resource rich stations are using them. In terms of patterns, I would say one thing that really stood out is that in more than one-third of the cases where we saw video news releases being broadcast, the entire prepackaged part, so video news releases contain a prepackaged ready-to-air portion and then usually extra video called b-roll. In more than one-third of the times that we saw video news releases being broadcast on these stations, they just put on the air in their local newscast, without disclosure, the entire prepackaged segment. And that was something that was pretty interesting and pretty unanticipated by myself and Daniel Price, looking at this — going into this study.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Price, let’s talk about the FOX report that we saw. Now, this was a case where they didn’t use their own reporter, taking the scripts from the corporation that pays for the VNR. They actually called the P.R. flack their reporter, by saying FOX’s.

DANIEL PRICE: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

DANIEL PRICE: One of the things that they do to help pass off the story as their own journalism is when they don’t revoice it with their own reporter, they will introduce the voice of the original narrating publicist as if he or she were a reporter at the station. So, instead of saying G.M.’s Andrew Schmertz or Medialinks Andrew Schmertz, which would be the more truthful disclosure, they just say that basically this is FOXs Andrew Schmertz, or, in most cases, theyll just say, Sonya Martin has the story.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you don’t have any indication that the companies or the public relations firms are actually paying for these releases. They are just trying to get them disseminated to get the particular perspective of the company on the issue involved with the product line that’s being promoted.

DANIEL PRICE: Right. Exactly. We have no evidence that there’s any financial compensation. However, its very important to note that the newsrooms are very cost-conscious, and every minute they get of someone else’s content thats just ready to plug in is lots of money saved for them. So, some newscasts have four to six hours a day of local news airtime to fill and not enough people to fill it. So, VNRs are kind of like manna from heaven for them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to a video news release about the prescription skin cream Mimyx, manufactured by Stiefel Laboratories.

PUBLICIST: More than 15 million Americans are diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, commonly referred to as eczema. The chronic inflammatory disease that affects 90% of patients within the first five years of their lives is characterized by red dry, itchy skin that rashes. This uncomfortable and unpleasant condition largely affects children but can also affect adults and often leads to sleep interruption due to the severity of the itch. While the cause of eczema is unknown, doctors say it can result from genetics, environmental factors or an over-reactive immune system. While many products to treat eczema are currently available, the F.D.A. has recently cleared a new approach in managing the signs and symptoms of eczema, called Mimyx cream.

SPOKESPERSON: Our goals in managing eczema are basically twofold. First of all, we want to relieve the signs and symptoms of the disease. And secondly, we want to try to rebuild the skin barrier that is usually compromised in individuals with eczema.

AMY GOODMAN: On December 19, 2005, WYTV Channel 13 in Youngstown, Ohio, ran a news segment based on this video news release. Viewers were never notified that the segment was paid for by the skin cream manufacturer, nor were viewers provided with any of the medical warnings included in the original V.N.R.

NEWSCASTER: The government has approved a new treatment for a chronic skin condition that usually begins in childhood but can stretch into adulthood. In Len Romes Local Health, well show you this new approach to eczema.

LEN ROME: If you have eczema, chances are the first symptoms showed up before the age of five. It affects 15 million Americans. Your skin develops a red dry, itchy rash. While the cause is unknown, doctors say it can simply run in the family, or you might have an overactive immune system. The new treatment is called Mimyx. Its a prescription cream.

SPOKESPERSON: It has a dual function to both rebuild the skin barrier and to reduce the signs and symptoms of eczema.

AMY GOODMAN: That news segment ran on WYTV Channel 13 in Youngstown, Ohio. The station’s news director, Pat Livingston, declined to come on Democracy Now! today, but he defended the airing of the video news release. He said the station’s health reporter checked the claims of the report with local doctors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Another station that aired portions of this V.N.R. was WCPO Channel 9 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The station’s news director, Bob Morford, also declined to come on the program, but he did issue a statement to Democracy Now! He wrote, “I understand and share concern about the use of video news releases. They can be misleading, given that they are often created at the behest and expense of a company an activist group or a governmental agency. Therefore, we treat them carefully. However, we do not refuse to use them for the same reason newspapers do not ignore or fail to read and use written press releases.

Bob Morford from WCPO in Cincinatti went on to say, In the specific case to which you refer, [our] story ends with Right now, Mimyx is only available by prescription. We feel this more than adequately covers the contraindications concern. Its the doctors job to know the problems and to warn the patient. Its also a reasonable patient who asks the doctor about any possible side effects.    




2 Comments

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2 responses to “Fake TV News

  1. morethinking

    This is interesting. I have noticed this sort of trend with other non-medical products as well.

  2. Vartan

    This is the reason I refrain from participating in serious intellectual discussions on the “news”, politics, and even history unless I am disclosing the myriad of equally justifiable perspectives. With so much personal interest behind each of the networks sponsors or the bias of the person writing the history book I don’t see it as anything more the pseudo-intellectual psycho-babble.

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