< The Ad That News Forgot


Friday, April 07, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. There is advertising, there is P.R. – and then there is stealth P.R., paid messages, like ads, coming to you in the form of what looks like real news. The VNR, or Video News Release, is a pre-produced P.R. product paid for by corporations or government agencies but made to look like original reported news. Now, we have been reporting on this practice for years now, but, according to a study released Thursday by the Center for Media and Democracy, the practice is far more prevalent and corrupt than previously understood. Diane Farsetta is a senior researcher for the Center, and she joins us now to report on the findings. Diane, welcome to On the Media.

DIANE FARSETTA: Thanks very much for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: TV stations want stories that cost them nothing to produce and companies want to get favorable news coverage. At that risk of belaboring the obvious, tell me why this is bad.

DIANE FARSETTA: The question is the public's right to know. We saw two instances of video news releases being put out for prescription medications. In one case, all of the risk information was removed from what the TV stations aired. In another case, it was very much reduced. So there are real consequences in terms of health. There are real consequences just in terms of participating in a democracy and being able to trust your television news, which is how most people still, in the United States, do get their information.

BOB GARFIELD: These things get produced by the thousands every year, but how many of them ever actually wind up on television?

DIANE FARSETTA: I can tell you what we found in our report. What we looked at is what we estimate to be roughly about one percent of the total over the ten months that we did this investigation. We started off with 88 different video news releases. We found 36 of those that were used in different ways on 77 different television stations. And actually 13 of those 77 television stations are in the ten largest markets. It's not restricted to those smaller stations that obviously have the resource constraints, and that's one reason why we say it's so widespread. If you add up the audience that those 77 stations reach, it accounts for more than fifty percent of the U.S. population that's within their broadcast area.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, that's alarming on the face of it, half of the population being exposed to fake news, but we spoke a couple of years ago to the founder of Media Link, which is the production company that makes a lot of these things, and the number he cited was actually much higher.

DIANE FARSETTA: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. I totally believe that. And what we were able to track was less than one percent, so we are not saying that other TV stations don't air video news releases. I know there have also been multiple Nielsen surveys of television stations, 1996 and 2000, where they had 100 percent of television stations surveyed saying, yes, we do use video news releases.

BOB GARFIELD: When you found these things, were they running intact or were they just cannibalized for parts, you know, to get a piece of film of, I don't know, pharmaceuticals being manufactured or something that would have been expensive for the station to shoot?

DIANE FARSETTA: What we found was that over one-third of the time that we saw the video news releases being broadcast, it was the entire pre-packaged segment. And they would often introduce the publicist by name as if he or she were a reporter with the local station. And also, we could only identify seven times where TV stations added any independently-gathered footage or any information outside of the script that the P.R. firm sent along with the video news release.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's hear what this sounds like. Here's a nice feature on holiday gift-giving.

VNR TAPE (ROBIN RASKIN, “CORRESPONDENT”): Before you hit the stores this holiday season, technology experts warn some of the best gifts have the potential to go bad.

WOMAN: One of the scariest examples is Apple's new iPod Nano. It's capable of video, and now there's pornography all over the Internet.


BOB GARFIELD: Okay. I'm just curious. Who produced that? A wild guess – someone in the consumer electronics business?

DIANE FARSETTA: [LAUGHS] Actually, three different consumer electronics companies – Panasonic, Namco and TechnoSource. Not only were products of those three companies being promoted by Robin Raskin, the tech expert, as she's called in these segments, but actually there were products of two competitors that were being disparaged.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, of course, TV news stations do run holiday packages of various sorts, and the P.R. firms can anticipate this, and they also can anticipate what is sort of generally in the news anyway. Here's one, in these days of energy crisis, for ethanol.

VRN TAPE (KATE BROOKES, “CORRESPONDENT”): Farmers have been growing corn for centuries, but these days the crop is being touted less for food and more for fuel. Plants like this are popping up across the country, converting corn into ethanol, clean-burning, renewable fuel…

DIANE FARSETTA: The funder behind that was a company called Siemens AG. They supply equipment to two-thirds of the ethanol plants in the United States, so they obviously have a little bit of a vested interest in the likely increasing use of ethanol. The publicist – her name is Kate Brookes – she was actually on camera in this hard hat in front of this ethanol plant, being presented as though she were a reporter instead of a publicist.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, there's a step-cousin of the VNR called the satellite media tour. Tell me, please, how that works.

DIANE FARSETTA: Often, in addition to a video news release, these companies would be funding interviews that would be arranged between their spokesperson and local TV stations. So what you have is something that looks like and is technically a live interview, but what we found time and time again is that they followed the script. There were the same questions asked over and over and over again. There were the same responses. If there's not a script, that was an incredible amount of coincidence that [LAUGHS] we were seeing going on.

BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any reason to believe that the FCC is finally going to crack down or that anything's going to change?

DIANE FARSETTA: On Wednesday, we filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. They're going to look at what we found and refer it to the Enforcement Bureau. I know that we talked to Commissioner Adelstein about this. I know that he was very upset that all of the examples that we documented came out after a public notice was issued by the FCC, in April, 2005, that clarified what the disclosure rules were. So he said, Look, obviously they're not listening. We have to seriously look at how the rules have been broken, but also to look at possibilities of strengthening the current disclosure rules.

BOB GARFIELD: Diane Farsetta is senior researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy. Thank you very much.