Canned News

PR becomes "reporting" at WFAA

ABC records show that WFAA downloaded that "Medical Minute"; in fact, some lines of St. James' report that eventually aired were lifted directly from it. Yet her take on the supplements is ultimately neutral or positive, incorporating the VNR testimonials. The headline for the segment on the WFAA Web site reads, "Study shows supplements can help arthritis."

So how did WFAA get the VNR in the first place? One explanation is that it was provided by CNN. As with ABC's News One, the Atlanta-based news network feeds stations stories designed to be localized through a service called Newsource. But while News One avoids VNRs, CNN's Newsource includes them.

CNN spokesman Chris Wilborn provided a statement explaining how it's done: "CNN clearly identifies such material, which are third-party segments not produced by CNN, by placing them into a specially designated VNR folder...In addition, these materials are further noted as VNRs in the folder's content list and each individual file's slug, category and item number. Since 2004, Newsource added more identification marks that clearly identify the source and sponsor of the VNR."

Wilborn says that the extra safeguards that CNN put in place in response to the Bush administration's VNR controversy ought to make mistakes virtually impossible. "It's so clearly identified that I am shocked that stations are still overlooking them," he says. What's more, the VNR itself is clearly identified as such at the beginning and the end of each segment. "You'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb to miss it," says study co-author Price.

Yet it seems clear that somehow WFAA did just that. "We haven't had any TV station dispute what we have found," says Diane Farsetta, the second author of "Fake TV News." "Many of them have gone back to their archives and said, 'Oh yeah, we did air that. Sorry.'" Not WFAA--even after the ABC spokesman contacted Valentine, the WFAA news director grew even more insistent of the station's innocence. In a message to the Observer, he couldn't be more clear: "My simple comment would be we did not run any VNR footage, period."

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