Most television viewers don't know it, but a huge portion of what they watch on the local news programs aired by their favorite stations is not actually "news." Rather, local television stations around the country have in recent years been taking "video news releases" from the federal government and major corporations – particularly the big pharmaceutical companies – and airing them as if they were news reports.
Video news releases (VNRs) are so common these days that they actually dominate some newscasts, blurring the lines between advertising and news more blatantly than product placements in movies do the lines between advertising and entertainment.
But, from now on, VNRs will be identified as productions of the corporations that developed them, rather than pawned off as part of the news.
The Federal Communications Commission has called on television stations to disclose the origin of VNRs used on their news programs. "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems," reads the FCC statement issued Wednesday, which was unanimously approved by all four FCC commissioners.
The FCC has instructed newscasters that they must abide by FCC sponsorship identification rules when they air VNRs and called for comments from license holders and cable operators about their use of the public-relations and advertising videos – including those produced by the government.
"Today's Public Notice… reminds broadcast stations, cable operators, and others of their disclosure obligations under our rules, if and when they choose to air VNRs, and to reinforce that we will take appropriate enforcement action against stations that do not comply with these rules," explained FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.
The decision of the FCC came after a campaign organized by the Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press, which filed a joint complaint regarding the issue on March 21. Accompanying the complaint was a petition signed by more than 40,000 Americans expressing concern about what the groups refer to as news fraud and that the Government Accounting Office has labeled "covert propaganda."
In the statement from the FCC, the commissioners cited the "large number of requests" for an investigation that had been received by the agency. "Citing the complaints, one commissioner urged the agency to aggressively investigate the use of VNRs that, according to the New York Times, have been produced using taxpayer funds by at least 20 federal agencies seeking to promote Bush administration policies.
"Recently, tens of thousands of citizens contacted the FCC demanding an investigation into the failure of broadcasters to disclose their use of government-generated ‘news' stories. They were right to do so," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. "This Commission should investigate each such case. And it should strenuously enforce the rules against inadequate sponsorship identification."
That's the hope of John Stauber, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, who said after the decision, "Not labeling VNRs constitutes news fraud and violates the most basic ethical standards of journalism. It's now time for TV news producers to own up their responsibility to the viewing public and fully disclose their use of fake news."
(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, which, along with the Center for Media and Democracy, is helping community groups around the country to develop "citizen agreements" with local television stations. The agreements commit broadcasters to label VNRs produced by corporations and the government. For more on the campaign, visit www.freepress.net/propaganda)