Published on Saturday, April 8, 2006 by Inter Press Service
And Now the News... Or Is It an Ad?
by Aaron Glantz
SAN FRANCISCO, California - If you had tuned into New York's WCBS-TV on Feb. 22, you would have gotten some very good news about glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, two dietary supplements the anchors said can help blunt pain from osteoarthritis.
"There may be new hope tonight for many Americans who suffer from moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis," one of the hosts announced.
The news program then introduced a man named Jeff Van Nostrand, who they said had suffered the pain of arthritis in his knees for years. But, the host said, Van Nostrand and the other 21 million people in the U.S. who suffered from the ailment could now hold out hope because a new study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine showed glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate could "ease the pain".
WCBS-TV didn't tell their viewers that the interview with Van Nostrand was not done by their news organization but by a public relations company called MultiVu -- at the behest of Leiner Health Products, a southern California company that manufactures the supplements. The entire story, shot for shot, came from a video press release. All WCBS did was cut for time and swap out the voice of the company for its own host.
But WCBS is hardly alone.
A new study released Thursday by the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy found that at least 77 television stations around the country have aired corporate-sponsored video news releases over the past 10 months. The report accused the stations of actively disguising the content -- which has been produced and paid for by companies like General Motors, Panasonic and Pfizer -- to make it appear to be their own reporting.
"You don't know if you're watching independently gathered news or something that's little better than an advertisement that's just being played on a news program," the Center for Media and Democracy's Diane Farsetta told IPS.
The report says none of the 77 television stations that used material from video news releases told viewers where their footage came from.
"The focus is promoting products sometimes in an incredibly blatant way," she added. "You get Panasonic promoting their electronics, Bisquick promoting their pancake mix. We also found two examples of video news releases promoting new prescription drugs."
IPS sought comment from a number of TV stations that broadcast video press releases as news. In addition to WCBS, calls were made to KABC in Los Angeles, which broadcast video from an allergy medicine company, KCBS, also in Los Angeles, which broadcast a press release from an internet pornography blocker, and KPIX in San Francisco, which used tape provided by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to promote a new treatment for diabetes. No one at any of the stations was available for comment.
The public relations company MultiVu, which produced many of the news releases, issued a statement putting the onus on news organizations to disclose the source of their video.
"As they have for decades with printed news releases, media organizations use their own editorial discretion when using broadcast PR content in connection with their reporting," said Tim Bahr, president of MultiVu.
"MultiVu supports them by ensuring that every VNR is delivered with proper attribution," he added. "Our own policy is not to distribute anything without including a verified, identified source of the content. We firmly support the media's editorial judgment of how to use that attribution."
The Center for Media and Democracy is calling on the government to require television stations to tell viewers when they play a video news release. Indeed, they say, disclosure is already mandatory according to a ruling last April by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates television.
"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," the document reads.
The Society of Professional Journalists estimates that the PR industry produces between 5,000-15,000 video news releases a year. Without disclosure, it is impossible to know how many of them end up being broadcast into U.S. homes.
According to the Center, Congress's Government Accountability Office has ruled repeatedly that any government video news release that does not make its source clear to news audiences constitutes illegal covert propaganda.
But the George W. Bush administration has dismissed that, and the government currently produces video press releases of its own.
Last year, it emerged that payments had been made to newspaper columnists, among them conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who secretly received 240,000 dollars for promoting "No Child Left Behind", the administration's education initiative.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service