The following broadcast looks, feels and sounds a lot like a local news report, complete with someone who appears to be a reporter.
Department of Agriculture Video News Release "In addition to being disease-resistant, the Rainbow papaya has been noted to be tasty and flavorful. In Hawaii, I 'm Jennifer Prediger …reporting for the Department of Agriculture.
The minute and a half video, produced by the Department of Agriculture, describes the benefits of disease-resistant papaya but does not address the controversy over such genetically modified food. It's a press release with images, according to Charles Davis of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He says such video news releases, or VNRs, are not news at all. They often present one point of view without criticism, failing the test of objective reporting. “There is nothing inherently wrong with a video news release. The difference is when it is packaged and displayed as legitimate independent news when it is not.”
Most video news releases cover subjects that local television stations consider newsworthy. They range from information about how to recognize a new American $50 bill to Iraqi-Americans supporting regime change in Baghdad. But Professor Davis says viewers can rarely tell the difference between VNRs and actual news. And, he says, video news releases are seldom balanced.
A recent study by opposition Democrats in congress suggest that the Republican Bush administration spent over 250 million dollars during its first term on public relations contracts, nearly double what the Clinton administration spent in its last term.
The U.S. government has produced film and video packages for decades. Joseph Angotti, a former television executive and now professor of journalism at Northwestern University, says local broadcasters rarely aired them in the past. But times have changed. “Local news stations are inclined to use these stories for a couple of reasons. It's cheap. They don't have to assign reporters. They don't have to spend any money at all to put what appears to be a news story on-the-air and fill a newscast.”
Professor Angotti says television stations should reveal the source of these stories, but that rarely happens. “The people I blame are those who own and operate the stations that use these VNRs. They are the ones that are compromising public trust. Local stations have their own political agendas. That was not the case in the past when television news operators would go out of their way to avoid showing bias in any direction. But now it is routine for an audience to know a local station is owned by a conservative organization or a liberal organization.”
But John Doolittle, a journalism professor at the American University in Washington, doesn’t think it is intentional deceit. “Local stations, particularly in the age of satellite, get hundreds of these kinds of resources fed to them, whether they use them or want them.”
Video news releases are provided free via satellite or the Internet to local stations like WVIR of Charlottesville, Virginia. David Cupp is a former news director for the station, which broadcasts nearly five hours of news each weekday. “I cannot imagine any broadcast journalist would purposely mislead. But inadvertently, when you have tremendous deadline pressure, people make choices that may not be as fully thought out as they should have been.”
Some scholars argue that the U.S. government is exploiting the growing vulnerability of resource-strapped television stations by producing so many video news releases. But Charles Davis of the University of Missouri says both the U.S. government and local news stations are at fault for the current situation. “This is clearly a Bush-era phenomenon. I am not sure if it is attributable to the Bush presidency or the fact that we are just at the moment in history in which government employed public relations people figured out the brilliance of this strategy which is we will hide people, call them reporters when they are really not and the broadcast outlets will pick it up.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, recently called some VNRs "covert propaganda" and advised federal agencies not to produce pre-packaged messages that fail to identify the source of the material. Most analysts say the best way to clean up fake news is to promote greater transparency on all sides.