Television news stations caught reporting fake news
By DAVID BARSTOW
April 6, 2006
Many television news stations, including some from the nation's largest markets, are continuing to broadcast reports as news without disclosing that the segments were produced by corporations pitching new products, according to a report to be released today by a group that monitors the news media.
Television news directors have said that the segments, known as video news releases, are almost never broadcast, but the group assembled television videotape from 69 stations that it said had broadcast fake news segments in the past 10 months.
The new report was prepared by the Center for Media and Democracy, which is based in Wisconsin and which describes itself as dedicated to "exposing public relations spin and propaganda."
The report said none of the stations had disclosed that the segments were produced by publicists representing companies like General Motors, Capital One and Pfizer.
The center also said that many of the 69 stations took steps to blend the fake segments into their news broadcasts. Some had their news reporters or anchors read scripts supplied by corporations, the report said, and many had altered screen graphics to include the station's logo.
The report said that a few stations had introduced publicists as if they were their on-air reporters. Only a handful of stations added any independently gathered information or videotape, it said.
The 69 stations reach about half the population of the United States.
The report is noteworthy because the use of video news releases has come under fresh scrutiny in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission.
Congress and the F.C.C. took up the issue last spring after The New York Times reported that the federal government had produced hundreds of video news releases, many of which were broadcast without a disclaimer of the government's role.
Congress passed legislation temporarily requiring videos from federal agencies to clearly disclose the government's authorship.
The F.C.C. warned that stations broadcasting video news releases "generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing."
The agency threatened to fine violators and said it would study whether new regulations were needed.
Television news directors have resisted new rules. They have said that video news releases are an isolated problem. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, has compared the releases to the Loch Ness monster. "Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it," The Washington Times quoted her as saying last summer.
Station managers promised vigilance, and the directors association published guidelines that said video news releases should be used sparingly and always with their origins fully disclosed to viewers.
In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Cochran said new regulations were an unnecessary and potentially dangerous government intrusion into television journalism. "Where does it stop?" she asked, adding, "It is up to the individual stations to look at their practices and tighten up."
The new report says the guidelines are often disregarded.
The center planned to release its findings today on its Web site and at a news conference in Washington. On the Web site, www.prwatch.org, viewers will be able to view the original video news releases and watch how local stations used them.
The center presented its findings yesterday to F.C.C. officials, including Jonathan S. Adelstein, a commissioner who has criticized video news releases. In an interview, Mr. Adelstein called the cases in the report a "disgrace to American journalism" and evidence of "potentially major violations" of F.C.C. rules.
"I'm stunned by the scope of what they found," he said. "I guess they found the Loch Ness monster."