Despite an FCC investigation that could result in broadcast license revocation, TV stations continue to air corporate-funded public relations videos without disclosure. A new report released last week by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) names 46 stations still airing video news releases (VNRs) — commercially sponsored segments produced to mimic independent news reports. Eight of the stations had been reported previously to the FCC for the illegal practice.
Last week’s report is a follow-up to a CMD April 2006 report that named 77 TV stations that had aired VNRs. Not once were the sponsors of the segments disclosed to news audiences. According to Diane Farsetta, CMD senior researcher and co-author of the report, of the VNR broadcasts documented, only two stations offered clear disclosure of the client behind the segment.
In August, the FCC launched an investigation into VNR usage, sending letters of inquiry to the owners of all 77 stations. After the proceeding began, the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), critical of the CMD reports, urged the FCC to halt its investigation. A new consortium of broadcast PR firms, the National Association of Broadcast Communicators, is now promoting industry self-regulation.
Last week, the RTNDA said it had not reviewed all the findings of the new report, but argued that even if the allegations were true, “it provides no credible basis upon which the FCC can justify the extraordinary step of inserting itself into broadcast newsrooms and questioning their exercise of editorial discretion.”
The latest report documents news broadcasts of undisclosed VNRs from major corporations, such as General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Allstate Insurance and Novartis. One VNR, funded by a lobbying firm that represents ExxonMobil, claimed that there was no link between global warming and more severe hurricane activity.
More than 80 percent of the stations named in the CMD’s research are owned by large media conglomerates — including stations owned by News Corp., Tribune, Gannett, Disney, The Washington Post, Sinclair Broadcasting, Media General and Univision.
The CMD and other public interest groups said they would file a formal complaint with the FCC asking the commission to expand its ongoing investigation into undisclosed VNRs. The groups urged the agency to clarify disclosure requirements and penalize all stations that air fake news.
The full report, “Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs,” along with video footage of the VNRs and the TV newscasts that incorporated them, is now online at www.stopfakenews.org.