< The Nightly News Sell


Friday, October 24, 2003

BOB GARFIELD: Well, that's morning chat. At least viewers can rest assured that stories they see on the local news are journalistically pure. Or can they? The convergence of public relations ingenuity and broadcast stations' budgetary exigencies has yielded another dubious hybrid: the Video News Release -- a P.R. bonanza, and the news business's dirty little secret. Here's an example. [TAPE PLAYS]


MAN: Sure, it's packed with Vitamin C, but orange juice has plenty more to offer. It can help protect your heart by raising your good cholesterol, and when it's fortified, it's a great source of calcium for non-milk drinkers. And that's not all! It's also rich in potassium, which reduces our risk for high blood pressure and for stroke.

BOB GARFIELD:That was a story about the health miracle of orange juice on WWLP-TV, Springfield, Massachusetts. But it wasn't a story discovered, written and produced by WWLP. It was a VNR-- a video news release -- prepared by the Ketchum P.R. agency on behalf of its client, in this case Pepsico's Tropicana. Each year, thousands of such VNRs are distributed by corporations, government agencies, non-profit organizations and even members of Congress who have discovered it's easier to manage the news when you actually produce it yourself. Thus the ever-growing deluge of expensively-produced, news-like video reports crafted, often by ex-journalists, to look and sound like actual telejournalism.

JOHN STAUBER: It is not news. It is fake news.

BOB GARFIELD: John Stauber is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and author of Toxic Sludge Is Good for You -- a scathing, leftie broadside against the public relations industry. He believes the use of VNRs amounts to systematic deception of viewers, both by the hidden interested parties behind them, and by news organizations with impure motives themselves.

JOHN STAUBER: So if I'm a TV news director, and I can fill most of the so-called 7 or 8 minute news hole on a local TV news program with provided footage that I get for free, I can save tens of thousands of dollars or more.

BOB GARFIELD:News directors don't like to talk about VNRs. The few who returned our calls said they seldom use the free material. But according to Nielsen Media Research, by 1994, 100% of TV stations were using them, and 80% were doing so at least several times a month. And today's digital watermarking of the footage proves nothing has changed. Larry Moscowitz is the founder and president of MediaLink, one of the world's largest producers and distributors of VNRs.

LARRY MOSCOWITZ: We determined prima facie and scientifically and electronically that every television station in America with a newscast has used and probably uses regularly this material from corporations and organizations that we provide as VNRs or B-Roll or other terminology we may use.

BOB GARFIELD:Not all VNRs run whole. Most often they are mined for a clip of background footage here, an interview fragment there. But producers estimate that as many as one in three appear uncut, unedited and un-examined for balance or even basic accuracy. And why? Because they are there, tempting budget-battered news directors. And because they are free.

DEBORAH POTTER: VNRs are enabling devices.

BOB GARFIELD: Former CBS correspondent Deborah Potter is director of the News Lab, the Washington, D.C. nonprofit dedicated to quality local television.

DEBORAH POTTER: They allow newsrooms to do less of their own work without fear of running out of material before the end of the hour. It's a concern, and it ought to be a concern, frankly, for viewers if much of the material that they're starting to get on the news isn't news.

BOB GARFIELD:As long as there has been a press, there has been a symbiotic relationship between journalism and P.R. -- and not necessarily an insidious one. Publicists and politicians looking to promote their agendas can serve those interests, and the media's as well, by calling attention to news or even fluff of interest to the public. It then becomes the media's job to establish the broader context and to separate the newsworthy wheat from the gratuitously promotional chaff -- and to be clear about the source of PR-furnished material. For instance, the Tropicana excerpt you heard at the top of this piece we found in a documentary based on John Stauber's book. Deborah Potter.

DEBORAH POTTER: I feel very strongly that if stations are going to use VNR material they need to tell where it came from. It makes a difference if the whaling video you're using came from Greenpeace or from the Coalition to Support Whaling.

BOB GARFIELD:Barbara Cochrane, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association says she believes most stations and networks do routinely identify the source of outside video, as per the ethical guidelines of her organization. But those within the VNR industry roll their eyes at that assertion. Doug Simon of VNR producer D.S. Simon Productions says disclosure is the exception -not the rule.

DOUG SIMON: From what we see, there's a very small percentage - perhaps less than 5% - that actually is identified what the source of the video is.

BOB GARFIELD:That makes him uneasy, but VNR producers can't do such disclosure themselves. Each station uses a different on-screen typeface to identify video, so the onus is on those airing the material, and dependent as they are on the illusion of a far-flung newsgathering operation, with tentacles throughout the community and beyond, there's little motivation to do so.

LARRY MOSCOWITZ: Can I say that local television stations have been lax? Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: MediaLink's Moscowitz acknowledges that stations are less than scrupulous about identifying the source of the footage he supplies. He does not believe, however, that the sin is particularly grave -- at least compared to other forms of journalism.

LARRY MOSCOWITZ: There is more unexpurgated, unedited and unredacted press information that shows up in the average daily newspaper in America, and certainly in the average weekly newspaper, probably by a 5 to 1 factor over the P.R. material that shows up in television. So you might be going after the wrong goat here.

BOB GARFIELD:The two wrongs make a right argument isn't the only one in favor of the video news release. Candace White, marketing professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and co-author of a 2001 study about VNRs, says the same self-interest that encourages news directors to use VNRs dictates that the material is used responsibly.

CANDACE WHITE: See, I trust news producers to be able to weed out true news value; I give them credit for being able to recognize blatant sales pitches. Our study found that the corporate videos were used the least, and the ones about health and safety were used the most.

BOB GARFIELD:But it's not necessarily the blatant sales pitches that are so dangerous. It is the subtle sales pitches, and the implication of independent journalistic approval conferred on a company or organization and its point of view, which is why her study's co-author, journalism professor Mark Harmon, sees VNRs as (quote) "insidious devices by corporate America to control the American agenda." Nor is the problem restricted to the local news. Not only do major networks use VNR footage. At least one, CBS, has a division which produces and distributes them. This gets back to the disdain and fear voiced by author and consumer advocate John Stauber.

JOHN STAUBER: All public relations is not sinister or evil or bad. But I think the important thing to understand is that indeed all public relations is propaganda.

BOB GARFIELD:So whether it's images of a NASA space walk or a self-congratulatory sound bite from your Congressman or swell health news about delicious calcium-fortified Tropicana orange juice, the message for TV news consumption is as ever: Let the viewer beware. While TV runs into problems when it fails to separate advertising from programming, it certainly can't do without advertising all together, and sponsors aren't picking up the programming tab out of the goodness of their hearts. They need an audience to watch the commercials. And the steady shrinking of network audiences is creating a gathering terror. The latest shocker from the A.C. Nielsen Company, a report that since last season alone, 750,000 men, aged 18 to 34 --advertisers' most coveted demographic -- have simply stopped watching TV. Joining me now to discuss this bombshell is David Poltrack, executive vice president of research and planning at CBS. Dave, welcome to On the Media.

DAVID POLTRACK: Thank you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, 750,000 human souls vanishing, just disappearing. What's going on?

DAVID POLTRACK: Well I wish I had the answer to that question. This is one of these anomalies that turns up in the audience measurement system occasionally, and would just be sort of a idle curiosity if it didn't mean so much economically.

BOB GARFIELD:Fine. It may be an anomaly, or it may just be some sort of blip that will be self-correcting. But what if it isn't? Is it possible that this is, as someone put it, the canary in the mineshaft?

DAVID POLTRACK: Advertisers are not going to abandon network television to any significant degree unless they can find something better, and the fragmentation in the television marketplace has impacted the television network audiences significantly, but it hasn't really created any new alternative. The fact that the networks have maintained their pricing is really a function of the fact that the top 20 shows have had significantly less erosion than the balance of the shows. So the premium product of network television has relatively held up. And in this particular case, of course, it's not just the network audiences going down. It's the overall audience that's going down. So there will be no relative winner in this, if it continues, which means that there's not an alternative out there that's getting stronger as a result of this, so it'll probably have very little effect in terms of the supply and demand mechanics of the marketplace.

BOB GARFIELD:I want to ask you for a moment to at least consider taking off the rose-colored glasses. Recently you were quoted responding to a projection that the use of personal video recording devices like TiVo was going to quintuple by the year 2007, which will in effect dramatically reduce the number of people actually watching commercials broadcast on over the air television. You were quoted as kind of shrugging, saying, well you know, we lose a certain percentage of our audience every year to cable, and yet the model continues to be going strong. Is it possible that between the growth of the internet, between the introduction of such devices as TiVo and other PVR technology, and the overall fragmentation of the audience that networks are close to losing the critical mass of gigantic audiences that enable them to sustain this model, and that there's a death watch on for the goose that lays the golden egg? Is that one of the possibilities?

DAVID POLTRACK: Well these are all changes that we have to adapt to. We recognize that we can't count on just our distribution system to keep us on top, and we have to look at cross-platform types of arrangements, re-purposing, all of the different things that are going to be very much a function of an environment where the viewer has more control. We have a challenge ahead of us. There's no question about it. I mean that's why we're, you know, we're pushing so hard for the FCC relaxation on the ownership limits, because the economics of local television station ownership support the finances and the programming investments of the television networks. The more stations we own, the more stable the advertiser model is for us, and there are a lot of pressures on that model. There's no question about it. You know, we're not being complacent or blase about the fact that it's just going to continue to go on.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, David, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: David Poltrack is executive vice president of research and planning at CBS. He joined us from his office at Black Rock. [MUSIC]

BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a documentation of terror using the terrorists' own video. This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]

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