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 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 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 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.

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]