Real Reform for Fake News

When video news releases (VNR) are aired by news programs unedited or lightly edited, I imagine PR pros get high fives from clients and supervisors for getting the key messages out unfiltered. So whatever could be the matter with VNRs?

VNRs, or “fake news,” the term preferred by public interest group PR Watch, are qualitatively different than written news releases. The use of PR people mimicking the dress and conventions of news reporters without real time disclosures of their mimicry crosses the line from briefing reporters to impersonating reporters.

And incredibly, VNRs continue to get aired by reporters unedited, or lightly edited. PR people love to blame producers for this. “There is a right and a wrong way for producers to use VNRs, and it’s not our fault that some use them the wrong way,” they say, doing a mighty fine impersonation of a hookah salesman.

Goodness knows, modern TV newsrooms are ripe for VNR abuse. They are badly understaffed by inexperienced and overworked producers and reporters. They are run by corporations focused more on increasing ad revenues and stock prices at any cost than promoting responsible local journalism. Enter PR pros, dangling beautifully produced VNRs in front of frazzled producers facing enormous news holes and perpetual deadlines. It’s a match made in heaven.

The PR industry bears a heavy share of the blame for VNR abuse, for it has the power to fix the problem but chooses not to.

We could, after all, have all VNRs carry written source disclosures over the full length of the video. For example, “Background materials provided by Company X” could be printed below B roll segments and “Not an actual reporter” could appear on the screen during narration segments.

We all know that a source disclosure before and after the VNR is not sufficient to prevent VNR abuse, because that leaves video, quite intentionally, “fresh” so producers can use the material without attribution.

Carrying a source disclosure through the full length of the VNR would make VNRs much more abuse-proof, save TV producers from themselves, preserve some of the remaining credibility of TV newsrooms, save clients from being subject to scathing criticism for promoting “fake news,” and help make public relations a more honorable profession. The hookah defense no longer cuts it.

— Loveland

5 thoughts on “Real Reform for Fake News

  1. I’ve never seen the “VNRs are sucky” argument come across as compelling — until now. It’s an interesting discussion. In this world of social media news releases and “everyone’s a marketer” and consumer-generated media (shitty phrase) and all that, there are a lot of other line that are (or aren’t) being crossed in a similar fashion.

    And really, if B-roll footage or VNRs are *good*, then it shouldn’t matter who made them or who airs them as unedited footage. If the story or idea or topic is presented fairly and effectively, *that’s* the pinnacle of VNR production. If we’re into making “it’d be nice and ethical but not required” edicts, I’d rather have good content than know where the content came from.

  2. Loveland says:

    Mike, you hit on the problem: “If the story or idea or topis is presented fairly…”

    Hypoteticals: What if the b-roll footage I produce is doctored, or selectively edited, to exagerate or fabricate my widget’s attributes? What if the b-roll was staged like community theatre to present the reality of my dreams? What if I handsomely paid the “expert” I feature in the VNR to say nice things about said widget?

    When an objective third party does the reporting, we have a higher degree of confidence that those kinds of things aren’t happeing. When the party who stands to profit from a positive story is doing the reporting, our confidence level drops. But with no disclosure, we have no idea who produced what. Is this a pseudo informercial or an objective news segment?

  3. Benidt says:

    Great discussion.
    VNRs are not news. Doesn’t matter if the PR people who make them think they’re good, bad, fair or a great “hit” for their client. They are promotional material, pure and simple
    They can be the raw material of news, like anything else produced by the company or organization. But all that stuff is designed to put the company or organization in the best light. We confuse our roles and buy our own hype if we think we’re producing good or fair news, or any kind of news.
    It’s the journalist’s job to sift all the information out there, try to separate what’s accurate from what’s spin, and, with VNRs, to tell viewers where the material came from.
    Loveland’s idea would remind those of us in PR about the truth of our own role. It’s actually more important for us than it is for journalists or viewers. When we conveniently forget that we’re advocating a position, and begin to think we have the true view of the world, then we’re really reading too many of our own press releases. Worse, like George Bush, we will be such true believers that we can’t even hear criticism. And if we can’t hear and analyze the other side — if we don’t even understand there is another side — then we cannot provide useful counsel to our clients.
    This discussion reminds me of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huck Finn, two hucksters who join Huck and Jim on the raft and exchange increasingly hilarious lies (stretchers, Huck calls these) about who they are and what they’ve done. PR people with the too-often-deserved reputation of spinmeisters debating the ethics of a medium that’s devoted to reporting on a dead blonde whose only claim to fame is breast implants would provide Sam Clemens with some amusement.

  4. The Donald says:

    I used to make a good living making and distributing VNRs – successfully – to 130 media markets for several years. In my view local television news – by itself – is so God awful that no one has a right to assert that VNRs are corrupting “journalism.”

    The fact is, local TV news is populated by good looking, narcicistic and unsophisticated dolts (insert Don Henley up under here). Most VNRs used are far better pieces (better production values, more informative, etc.) than local newsrooms have the ability to produce themselves. I would even include big market leaders like WNBC and KNBC in this discussion.

    Bottom line: TV journalism ain’t. It’s so broken it’s hard to know where to start.

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