The Truth About VNRs

A March 28 cover story in B&C [“The Art of Manufactured News”] describes “guaranteed placement,” a relatively new derivative of the video news releases (VNRs) in which PR firms and production houses buy spots to air what they term “branded journalism.” But the fundamental issue raised recently by congressional investigators and The New York Times is whether or not pre-packaged news or VNRs, produced by the government or corporations, should be labelled.

News directors have reacted to this developing story mostly badly. Some have feigned ignorance; others whine that they were deliberately misled. Are we to believe that it's really this easy for PR professionals to put one over on news experts? An implicit responsibility of all news professionals is to check sources and to be sure of the integrity of what they publish or air. There are no ifs, and or buts.

Some have blamed their laxity on tight budgets and the ever-increasing pressure on news stations to put out more content with fewer resources. But the news business—certainly at the local level—has never enjoyed an abundance of resources, and the pressure to do more with less is hitting all kinds of industries. Citing tight budgets for airing news reports without proper sourcing is a lame excuse.

VNR producers, meanwhile, have held roundtables and Webcasts and rushed to pacify worried clients that this issue “will blow over.” The truth is that voiced-over reports have flourished through the years because the PR industry and its clients have found comfort in producing the “ideal” story they'd like to see aired in the knowledge that some station somewhere is likely to air it. The reports are created to look like, act like and smell like real news broadcasts, the better to confer an aura of editorial purity. And VNRs also provide higher margins because clients can be charged for all that extra creative work. So VNR producers have no incentive to see a diminished use of this product.

Despite the intense spotlight on voiced reports, the bulk of the PR industry opts for B-roll distribution. B-roll is raw, stock footage provided to the media without voiced-over treatment. It gives journalists full control to utilize the video and create their own narrative.

From a practical standpoint, using B-roll provides significant benefits to news producers and the PR industry. Stock footage has a longer shelf life and is less costly to produce than voiced-over reports, thus providing a greater return on investment. The media also has greater receptivity to B-roll content.

The reality is that the news business won't survive on self-produced content alone. It is naïve to think otherwise. But using voiced reports without attribution is self-defeating and will ultimately undermine the relationship between news provider and viewer. Though on opposite ends of the spectrum, the news professional and the PR professional are united by one defining factor: The success of both professions rests entirely on credibility.