Beware "Newsvertising"

Strapped for cash and time, local news stations are turning to a quick fix to slap together news stories. They’re called VNRs or “video news releases.” Basically a PR firm puts together a package with background footage, interviews, and even helpful scripts. The package seeks to promote products, persons, or to massage public opinion on issues in ways favorable to corporations. All the local station has to do is have one of their reporters do a voice over and boom, you got yourself some news. The problem is that news is being shaped by a subjective entity with a commercial interest at stake, and there’s no disclosure to the viewers that they’re not watching independent reporting.

Pictured: Ad for broadcast PR firm D S Simon Productions

VNRs are nothing new, but that doesn’t stop them from proliferating. Here’s one reader Jay saw recently:

Last night on my local news station, I saw a story about “Search Engine Fatigue.” During the “news story” they interviewed and featured a guy from an advanced search engine called MyRide.com for vehicle shoppers and sellers that filters out all the porn and spam that you would find on Google or Yahoo. The interviewee claimed that these new advanced search engines such as MyRide.com are becoming prominent because they help consumers filter out all the junk.

What the news station failed to mention is that the entire segment was a Video News Release (VNR) produced and provided by a company called Autobytel, not by the station or an independent news organization. The problem lies with the fact that MyRide.com is owned by Autobytel.

Features like this are becoming more and more prevalent on local news channels and there is a fight with the FCC right now, trying to stop VNRs. At this point in time, most people are unaware that they are being fed thinly veiled advertisements on their local news.

Sincerely,
Jay Chrisman

It’s not just for companies, the New York Times reported in March 2005 that over 20 federal agencies have made use of VNRs to promote their agendas.

What can you do? Nothing, except be a critical and skeptical viewer.

MORE: Widespread and Undisclosed [Center for Media and Democracy]

Comments

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  1. warf0x0r says:

    And this is why I only listen to MPR or NPR. Unless there is an emergency I don’t watch local news.

  2. Canadian Impostor says:

    As if the rest of the news isn’t controlled by large corporations.

  3. aparsons says:

    just read a newspaper if you want local news.

  4. arby says:

    Is this story supposed to be news? VNRs have been pretty well known for a long time now.

  5. timmus says:

    I have actually been seeing this going on for 15 years, most often when local news was covering health stories. Just another form of “ask your doctor about ___”.

  6. Cowboys_fan says:

    You can’t trust anything most media says anymore, its all about profits and nothing more. I doubt we’ll ever get back to a time where if you saw it on tv, it was likely true. And for every minute they spent on one side of an issue, they would give an equal minute to the other side.

  7. vex says:

    I think something like this should have “Advertisement” displayed during the commercial, since it is deceptive otherwise. Kind of like how they do with the ads that are made to look like real articles that are so popular in magazines now.

  8. ZekeDMS says:

    I’ve seen a lot of fake news commercials(Brandpower, mostly) lately, but my favorite is definitely the station sponsored variety. In this case the KPHO “Pros who know” segments, where some local business pitches their service(it tends to be service related, roofing, air conditioning, construction, etc.), and the channel’s voice over guy tells us how they’re the experts in the field in Phoenix, and we should totally call them right now to find out if we need them.

    At first I thought people weren’t so stupid as to fall for this, but I realized, given how many more of them I’m seeing, that it’s apparently an extremely effective method. People really are dumb enough to think “But the news man said it, I can trust Kent Dana when he tells me to call George!”

  9. m0dified says:

    I’m an low level editor at a Local News Station in Monterey and I can attest that this does happen, but I’ve only had to edit one or two of these stories in the 6 months I’ve been working there. At least it doesn’t happen often where I am at…

  10. edrift101 says:

    Don’t forget that the government has been creating and using VNRs, to shape public opinion as well.

  11. “Search Engine Fatigue”

    Really? Really?

    That is so beyond stupid there aren’t even words for it.

  12. dirtymoney says:

    Yeah, i’ve seen & heard these on both tv & am radio. Usually you can tell that they are basically an infomercial masquerading as news. I got used to them being on late at night, but I am finding these more & more during the daytime hours (mostly on the weekends). THAT I truely hate!

    Back in the old days (late 70s/ early 80s… old tv shows (like the cisco kid, the lone ranger, battlestar galactica, emergency, etc. etc.) were played as filler for daytime tv on saturdays & sundays…. now its infomercials.

  13. jamesdenver says:

    Yes – local news is complete Bullshit. The interviews are so tightly edited you can make anyone say anything you want.

    People give opinions and they use about 5 seconds of footage from them. Compare that to NPR or BBC’s Outlook where people will go on for 10 minutes back and forth. Much more intelligent and beneficial for the recipient.

  14. BigNutty says:

    Here in Los Angeles their is a consumer reporter named Alan Mendelson. The other night I’m watching him do a report on a local vocational school. As the report continued for 30 minutes I finally realized it was an “infomercial”.

    I e-mailed and called the station to see if he still works for the station as it’s consumer reporter and asked about the segment in question.

    I still have not received a reply.

    Sure enough the next night it was on again and this time I saw the small disclaimer. The whole thing is a rip off and misleading and I can’t believe that do such a thing.

  15. saltmine says:

    There’s one giveaway that let’s you know, almost always, whether or not what you’re watching is a VNR. Local news stations don’t have the money or time to go shooting on location, so any time you see footage of, say, pills being produced in a factory, that footage has been supplied by a PR firm.

    VNRs have been around for at least a decade, probably much longer. They hit a notorious perioud in ’02 when it was discovered they were being produced by the White House to promote going to war. Of course, no one paid attention.

  16. copperheadclgp says:

    This is a big problem, but by no means a new one. Major news media was put up for sale, bought, and paid for years and years ago.

    I think that most Consumerist readers likely have the spidey-sense that tells them when they are being sold a bill of goods, unlike the rest of the country who considers organizations such as Fox and its affiliates to be an actual news source.

  17. mac-phisto says:

    hey, even the town crier could be accused of media bias back in the day.

    these segments do seem to cross some sort of invisible line that should exist, if it doesn’t already. print already distinguishes between ads & not-so-ads (a/k/a “stories”) usually by placing a thick black box around the fake reporting that says, “this is an ad, stupid!” seems to me that tv & radio should follow suit in a similar fashion.

  18. lostalaska says:

    @aparsons:

    And where might I find this News on Paper you speak of?

  19. adrock75 says:

    I was in LA last week and saw and saw this hard hitting news story on how CVS Pharmacy is now catering to women and rearranging the store to attract more women. They interviewed this incredibly attractive lady. I’ve been to numerous CVS stores and I’ve seen the people that go in there. I’m sure this lady had never been in one before.

    It was a complete joke, I mean – this is news?

  20. UpsetPanda says:

    The News? Subjective? Get outta here. Out for a profit? YOU MUST BE JOKING.

    I work in news, and this doesn’t surprise me at all. Magazines have been doing it for years..it’s only in the last few years that they’ve been required to put ‘advertising’ in teeny letters on the top of the ad page so that those who are scrupulus of those kinds of thigns may see that (insert fad of the day here) can promise to heal you of wrinkles, spider veins and all sorts of normal aging things, and give you smooth skin, all with a ‘biologically enhanced organic natural formula of vitamin protein fibers’ or some crock like that.

  21. JiminyChristmas says:

    Local television stations are the worst when it comes to this sort of thing; all of those ‘news you can use’ segments are just thinly disguised shills. You can also tell who pays their bills when it comes to the kind of investigative reporting they don’t do. You will rarely, rarely see a local tv news organization go after a large volume car dealer because they are hands down the largest buyer of ad time.

    Of course, similar forces are at work in the newspapers. My local paper is always packed with ads for cars and real estate. As a result you don’t see many articles that criticize any aspect of auto manufacturing and sales, nor do you hear much about suburban sprawl, shoddy building practices, or anything else that might irk developers or the state Builder’s Association.

    You can’t really count on the network news programs either. Ever wonder why you see ads from companies or associations you (as an individual) can’t really buy anything from? E.g.: Boeing, Dow Chemical, various industry associations. It’s not just brand or product awareness, but also a form of protection and influence. Sources of ad revenue are a lot less likely to be targets of critical reporting.

  22. guevera says:

    Honestly, considering the relatively few times VNRs get aired, it’s amazing that companies still produce so many of them. Judging from the satellite feeds and the pitches I see faxed to the newsroom everyday there are thousands of these things produced every year and I’ve never seen them used as they’re intended.

    Quality stations will NEVER air a VNR. They’ll sometimes pull video from one for their own report. Usually you’ll use it when the company goes bankrupt or the CEO gets arrested for kiddie porn. Even then you’ve GOT to disclose the source of the video.

    I take it very seriously that you don’t edit a soundbite to change someone’s meaning.

    At my station we have serveral full time pros working on health and consumer beats. They are very careful about NOT being shills for anyone, whether it’s a doctor cliaming to cure cancer or a company shilling a “better mousetrap.”

    And for the record: I take a special and perhaps perverse pride in running stories that criticize big time advertisers. The problem is a general lack of serious investigative reporting on all topics, not a fear of advertisers.

    A lot of the rather broad media bashing going on here is just a little off.

    I work in local tv news — and despite the insane profit pressure (successful local tv stations make 30-50% profit. I’ve known full time drug dealers who don’t do as well), ridiculous levels of understaffing, and ever more aggresssive pursuit of ever less informed and engaged viewers, some of this is off base.

    Except for very rare errors, you can believe every fact stated in my newscasts by one of our anchors or reporters.

    The problem is often the fact we’re reporting is “the president/speaker pelosi/Police Sgt. Liar T. Cop says (insert bald-face lie here).”

    Don’t say you can’t believe anything you see on tv news — say we don’t have the resources/time/expertise/interest/courage to actually find the truth instead of just what people claim is the truth.

    Say we report superficially, without context or depth or background or follow up. These and a million other things are valid.

    But don’t say we report lies. And don’t say we’re bought and paid for — I don’t make enough to be bought by anyone.

  23. yagisencho says:

    I can’t remember the last time I watched a local news broadcast. Maybe…1999? 2000? This trend only cements my decision not to bother.

  24. drjayphd says:

    @guevera: 50,000 points for standing up for those of us in the media. Too bad it seems like too many commenters already made up their minds.

  25. Chairman-Meow says:

    @drjayphd: “Too bad it seems like too many commenters already made up their minds.”

    Gee, and why do you think people have done this? Maybe because it is true?

  26. mobilene says:

    Stations can get their butts in an FCC sling for airing VNRs without proper attribution. From an FCC public notice at [hraunfoss.fcc.gov]

    “For the reasons noted in this Public Notice, and as provided for in the statutory provisions and in the Commission’s rules, whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs, licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing. We will take appropriate enforcement action against entities that do not comply with these rules.”

  27. drjayphd says:

    @Front_Towards_Enemy: (ahem) My lone TV experience was interning at a TV station where they would never consider VNR’s (and, for that matter, tossed any notice that included that acronym). If a station does run them, fine, they have no credibility. But leave the stations that actually vet their segments out of this. I know, painting with the broadest of brushes is so tempting…