Just about four years ago to the day, I criticized my industry, the public relations industry, for its use of video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are video segments designed to look exactly like a TV news story. But they are produced by PR pros, not reporters, often with PR people acting out the role of faux reporters. Just as PR people and their clients hope, VNRs often get run unedited or lightly edited on actual newscasts, which has caused watchdog groups like PR Watch to label this crowning achievement of the PR industry “fake news.” This brand of fake news has been shamelessly used over the years to sell everything from widgets to wars.
Ever the killjoy, I argued back in the day that VNRs 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.”
VNR’s just do not pass a reasonable person’s smell test.
My quixotic propsoal was for PR pros to be proactively ethical, and disclose the funder of the VNR, via a continuously on-screen chyron, to make it impossible for a TV news producer to use any VNR footage without proper attiribution.
But the issue hasn’t gone away. In fact, last week the FCC penalized the local Fox affilate, KMSP-TV, for airing a story about the automobile industry that was, it turns out, exactly how General Motors would tell the story, if it were telling the story itself. Because it was. Because the KMSP-TV news team borrowed heavily from a GM-funded VNR advertisement.
The feds gave Twin Cities-based KMSP-TV the functional equivalent of a parking ticket — a paltry $4,000 fine — for failing to identify the clever General Motors PR team as being the funders, reporters, writers, directors, producers, videographers and distributers of the propaganda. But, hey, at least there was a fine.
MPR’s Martin Moylan produced real news on about the fake news in our midst:
Wright says the FCC has acted on only seven of her organization’s complaints about TV stations concealing the use of corporate-provided videos in newscasts.
KMSP’s owner, Fox Television, said neither the station nor its employees received anything for broadcasting the GM video. Fox argued the video was like a press release. Fox said it’s reviewing the matter, and it could appeal the fine. The FCC declined to comment.
All of which leaves me wondering, where are PR counselors getting their PR counsel?