Holding the line on news pollution

November 27, 2006

The exuberant growth of the Internet keeps churning out new opportunities to be heard among people who until now were silent. The Youtube phenomenon, in which millions of videos are uploaded and shared by non-professionals, is only the latest marker in this democratization of content.

But with this vastly expanded access come new challenges to traditional standards governing expression. On the Internet, does anything go? Should there be rules?

Professional communicators ¾ journalists, for instance ¾ have norms governing veracity, disclosure, advocacy and the like, which ought to be helpful to the new legions of Internet communicators in figuring out what’s permissible and what isn’t.

The winsome teen who seems to be uploading spontaneous reflections on life and boys shouldn’t, under those norms, actually be an actress doing audition videos for some aspiring director. Nor should the young man bragging about some new toy be a secret hireling of the company that sells it.

You’d think that kind of deception would have no place among communication professionals.

Unfortunately, that’s not always so. Consider the continuing presence in local TV of commercially-produced reports that are incorporated into news programming and sometimes presented as if they were independently conceived by newsroom staff rather than confected by outside publicists.

The video news release (VNR) phenomenon created a stir last spring when a Madison, Wisc., group called the Center for Media and Democracy released a report, “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed.” Researchers tracked 36 VNRs over a 10-month period and identified 77 TV stations that had aired them, without disclosing where they came from and who paid to make them.

Most involved features on matters such as health, food and the like where content could be readily spun around the seamless integration of promotional plugs.

Failure to disclose the VNRs’ origins was roundly denounced by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the Public Relations Society of America, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened an inquiry.

Now, the same center has released a second report on evidence that the practice continues. VNRs on subjects ranging from laptop security and dog medication to convertibles and cataract treatments found their way into 54 newscasts ¾ 48 of them with sources concealed ¾ aired by 46 stations in 22 states during the six months monitored by the center. Among them:

– An 82-second newscast lifted largely from a VNR supplied on behalf of Allstate, which  praised the advantages of life insurance as a savings instrument, used narration provided by the publicists and featured an Allstate official in front of the company “good hands” logo.

– A segment made on behalf of the Oticon A/S hearing aid was furnished to stations with overlays disclosing the source of the VNR. Of the 15 stations that used the report 12 stripped out or concealed those disclosures.

–  A report, “Global Warming: Hot Air?”, which criticized claims that an increased incidence of hurricanes might be related to global warming, was paid for by a PR and lobbying group that works for ExxonMobil.

– Four stations aired VNRs with publicists on-camera as if they were part of the stations’ staffs, rather than contractors working, in those instances, for General Mills and Siemens.

The stations involved, though mainly small- and mid-market, are not fringe operations. They are owned, as Broadcasting & Cable magazine noted, by such industry stalwarts as News Corp., Tribune, Gannett, Disney, the Washington Post Co., Sinclair Broadcasting, Media General, and Univision.

The news directors association seemed less concerned with new evidence of nondisclosure ¾ which it considered sparse ¾ than with threat of a regulatory crackdown. The report “provides no credible basis upon which the FCC can justify the extraordinary step of inserting itself into broadcast newsrooms and questioning their exercise of editorial discretion.”

Maybe so. Besides, it would be intolerable to have federal regulators inspecting TV news transcripts for what they deem proper attribution.

But the greater danger to TV news isn’t from the FCC, it’s from content pollution that could destroy what’s left of its credibility.

We’re now flooded with content that looks like news, via the Internet, on cable, via cellphones, satellite radio, iPods and the like. What’s rare are the channels for real news, and those franchises grow ever more precious. The VNR inroads threaten to make TV news indistinguishable from the endlessly proliferating forms of infotainment by which commercial objectives are engulfing and corrupting the flow of essential news and information.

The TV news business shouldn’t need regulatory threats to understand that the challenge isn’t just to its integrity, but to its survival.

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