Skip to main content

Media Reform Activists Defend VNR Study

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has issued a rebuttal to claims by the Radio-Television News Directors Association that its study finding that 77 stations had used unattributed video news releases VNRs in their newscasts was biased and inaccurate.

Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, which teamed with Center for Media and Democracy on the study, called RTNDA's letter to the FCC asking it to rescind letters of inquiry to the 77 stations "a spurious attempt to smother an investigation and undermine the public interest."

RTNDA argued the letters had had a chilling effect on TV newsrooms. "TV stations willing to disclose where the video in their newscast comes from should feel no chill at all," said CMD senior researcher Diane Farsett, who co-authored the study. "As the FCC stated in its April 2005 Public Notice on VNRs, news audiences have the right to know "who seeks to influence them."

The FCC is conducting a general inquiry into the use of VNR's. Following the release last spring of the CMD/Free press report, including online video clips from some of the stations that made it onto The Daily Show, it sent those stations letters asking for more information about their use the VNR's. Those letters do not presuppose any rule violations, and the FCC could find that the stations did nothing wrong.

Although RTNDA encourages its members to identify VNR's, the FCC only requires stations to do so in the case of political or controversial issues.

Most of the examples they identified were about child safety, shopping advice, holiday stories, food tips and toys, and cars, but there were couple of medical "breakthrough" stories provided by drug companies.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association has argued that few stations use packaged VNRs, ones that mimic news stories with narration, "interviews" and even faux reporters, and that those that do almost always identify them.

That came in a filing to the FCC, culled from an informal survey of 100 members.

Following the release of the study, RTNDA asked its members to toughen up their policies and oversight , but it pointed out last week to the FCC  that "while it is perfectly permissible for private sector organizations to adopt guidelines for constitutionally protected communications, the First Amendment clearly restricts governmental constraints aimed at the same or similar objectives."

Some in Congress have been trying to change the law to require government-issued packaged VNRs to have to be identified, stemming from some unidentified Bush administration VNRs on health care.

The administration says so long as the VNR's are truthful, they are not propaganda. The Government Accountability Office saw it differently, saying they violated rules against spending government money on domestic propaganda. Click here is the original report, and click here for CMD's rebuttal.