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Buying the TV News: Why You Can't Trust the News on TV

For most Americans (75 percent), local TV news represents a reliable news source -- something to turn to every morning and evening to get a good grip on what's going on in your area of the world and beyond. So trusted is the TV news that over 70 percent of U.S. adults watch network TV or cable news on a daily or near-daily basis, according to a Harris Poll from January 2006.

But the real disturbing news? Commercial propaganda, also known as "fake TV news" or "Video News Releases" (VNRs), is being aired all over the country -- on the smallest to the largest networks -- as real, journalistic news -- and without the public's knowledge.

How much of your favorite news program is actually corporate-funded propaganda?

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a non-profit organization that investigates and exposes public relations spin and propaganda, exposed just how widespread the use of fake TV news has become -- and how it is being broadcast as real news -- in a new report, "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," released in April 2006.

Meanwhile, CMD, along with Free Press, a media reform group, have filed formal complaints with the Federal Communications Commission urging an investigation into TV news fraud and requesting on-screen labeling for all VNRs and other "phony news stories."

What are VNRs?

VNRs are produced by corporations, government agencies, PR firms and other agencies to present a specific message to journalists. The catch is that these video clips, while appearing like a regular news segment, are geared toward a specific market to sell products, spread specific ideas or burnish an image.

Glowing Testimony for
MimyX Eczema Cream?

Three TV stations aired a VNR for the recently approved MimyX, a prescription skin cream used to treat atopic dermatitis, or eczema. The piece featured "glowing testimony" from a professor at the University of Louisville who is also a dermatologist. What did the news stations forget to include?

  • The story was actually a VNR funded by Stiefel Laboratories, the makers of MimyX. The stations added their own station brands and even their own health reporters to narrate the piece.

  • The 30 seconds of federally mandated contraindication warnings, which were even included in the original VNR. The public saw no safety information for this drug.

View the entire MimyX VNR now.

"If there is news in your brands we'll find a way to put your brands in your news. In a sense, it's product placement, but it's earned a place on the shelf," said Larry Moskowitz, the president and CEO of Medialink Worldwide, the largest producer of VNRs, in a Media Daily News report.

"Produced in broadcast news style, VNRs relay the news of a product launch, medical discovery, corporate merger event, timely feature or breaking news directly to television news decision-makers who may use the video and audio material in full or edited form. Most major television stations in the world now use VNRs, some on a regular basis," Medialink stated.

While VNRs and other public relations material can and should, arguably, be sent to news agencies, the public is under the general impression that such propaganda is filtered, rewritten or otherwise checked out by journalists.

However, according to the CMD report, VNRs are frequently aired:

  • Without disclosure to viewers

  • Without media outlets conducting their own reporting

  • Without fact-checking their claims

Television is the Most Popular News Source in the United States

Considering just how many Americans are influenced by what they see on the TV news, the use of "fake news" is alarming, if not downright infuriating. Why do TV stations use these PR pieces as real news?

"They allow newsrooms to do less of their own work without fear of running out of material before the end of the hour," said CBS correspondent Deborah Potter.

It was once thought that this was mostly the case only at small stations with tight budgets. However, the CMD report found that the use of VNRs is much more widespread.

"We determined prima facie and scientifically and electronically that every television station in America with a newscast has used and probably uses regularly this material from corporations and organizations that we provide as VNRs or B-Roll or other terminology we may use," said Moskowitz.

National Pancake Week!

To coincide with National Pancake Week, a VNR was played by four stations, featuring creative new ideas for pancake dishes.

Not surprisingly, the piece also directed viewers to visit and to try out the HeartSmart line of low-fat pancake mix. While this PR piece was funded by General Mills/Bisquick, none of the stations disclosed this information as they read the script nearly verbatim.

If you look at the photo above, you'll see the "reporter" Mike Morris (who is actually from Medialink, a producer of VNRs) as he appears in the original VNR (left) and again on two TV stations.

Another important, yet not mentioned, fact? National Pancake Week itself was first established in 1985 by General Mills and Bisquick.

See the Entire Video Here.

Thousands of VNRs Produced Each Year

The CMD report involved a 10-month tracking of 36 VNRs (of which thousands are produced every year). Some 77 television stations, which, collectively, reach over half of the U.S. population, aired these VNRs. Highlights of the CMD findings include:

  • Each of the 77 stations "actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting."

  • In almost all cases, "stations failed to balance the clients' messages with independently gathered footage or basic journalistic research."

  • Stations aired the VNRs in their entirety more than one-third of the time.

  • Nearly two-thirds of the VNRs tracked were aired in the Top 50 Nielsen market area, which includes Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

  • Thirteen VNRs were broadcast in the 10 largest markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

  • None of the 87 VNR broadcasts documented disclosed the clients behind the PR piece. Only one provided partial disclosure.

  • In every VNR broadcast, the TV stations made the material appear like their own, going so far as to add station-branded graphics and overlays.

  • A station anchor or reporter re-voiced the VNR in over 60 percent of the cases. Sometimes the reporter repeated the original VNR's narration word-for-word.

  • 47 of the 49 clients behind the tracked VNRs were corporations that stood to benefit financially from the news coverage.

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Take Action

"It's a concern, and it ought to be a concern, frankly, for viewers if much of the material that they're starting to get on the news isn't news," Potter said.

If you would like to voice your concerns over fake TV news broadcasts, CMD provides two outlets to do so.

  1. Send a letter to the FCC.

  2. Report inside knowledge of fake TV news reporting (because you work in a TV newsroom, for instance, or have heard of it from someone who does) to CMD.

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Center for Media and Democracy: Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed

Source Watch: Video News Releases

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