By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Video News Releases, TV ads disguised as news reports, have been around for decades. Only in March 2004, however, did debate about the use of VNRs break out of journalism circles. That's when D.C. publicist Karen Ryan's wildly successful spot pushing the Bush Administration's Medicare drug bill aired as news on more than 40 stations around the country. The resulting furor prompted legislation and, in April 2005, an Federal Communications Commission announcement that it would strictly enforce its regulations requiring TV stations to disclose the source of the stories they air.
Logic would suggest that after such a scandal, TV news outfits would go to almost any length to make sure unattributed VNRs didn't make it into their newscasts. But as happens so often, what logic suggests, reality ignores. Earlier this month, a media watchdog group released a study tracking just 36 of the thousands of VNRs produced each year. Turns out, 77 stations aired part or all of the VNRs a total of 98 times. Only once was the fact that the segments were created and paid for by a sponsor disclosed. And there, on the roll of shame of stations pushing commercials as news, was WFAA-Channel 8, Dallas' Belo-owned ABC affiliate.
According to the report "Fake TV News," by the Center for Media and Democracy, on February 22 WFAA aired portions of one of the VNRs tracked in the study. The spot, produced by DS Simon Productions in New York, was originally commissioned by a Spanish company to tout the wonders of its two diet supplements designed to relieve arthritis pain. When WFAA incorporated both images and sound bites from the VNR without identifying the source, the station violated the Radio-Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics, the industry standard. It also may have violated FCC regulations on source disclosure.
When contacted last week, WFAA News Director Michael Valentine at first denied the charge. "We investigated it and found it to be untrue," he said. "There were probably some issues on the reporting of the watchdog group." But a few minutes later, Valentine created some wiggle room. "If any snippet of a VNR appeared on our air, it would have come from our network," he allowed. ABC uses a system called News One to send out stories designed to be localized by its affiliates. Valentine said that's exactly what reporter Janet St. James did with her story on the arthritis supplement. "What ABC News One put into their story we have no control over," he said.
In other words, if it happened, it's ABC's fault. So we called ABC--and got another denial. "We are very, very careful not to allow [VNRs] to get onto the news feed," said ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. "I'm confident of what ABC News New York sent out, which is, according to our strict standards, an editorial product that is our own, that does not contain any of the VNR material."
Sounds like two strikes against the Center for Media and Democracy, until you look at the tape. Then it looks like a home run. The VNR footage, available on the center's Web site, incorporates the testimonials of a doctor, Nicholas DiNubile, and a patient, Jason Matley. There are shots of the supplements and of Matley walking and getting physical therapy. In an interview shot, Matley says, "After I started to take it, I could see it definitely started to pay off immediately." In the WFAA segment, available on its Web site, it is St. James reading a somewhat different text, and some of the images are new. But there's DiNubile, and there's Matley, walking, getting physical therapy and saying "After I started to take it, I could see it definitely started to pay off immediately."
Once you look at the specifics of the study, WFAA actually doesn't come off too badly, if being among the best of the worst is any consolation. The report notes that the Dallas station "actually undertook independent research and put the company's claimed benefits in their proper context." That only happened seven times out of the 98 incidents. While St. James generally stuck to the upbeat VNR assessment, she added a caveat at the end; the medical research cited by the VNR actually showed that patients given a placebo reported effects similar to those given the supplements. In effect, the caveat negates the premise of the story.
One question, raised by study co-author Daniel Price, is that after WFAA took the trouble of altering the VNR, why didn't the station just identify the parts that it kept? "For a story like they did, the fact that they reversed the context, they could have very easily labeled the footage without any loss of credibility," Price says. "They wouldn't have looked like corporate shills. Yet they chose not to do it, and that just baffles us."
And the tale gets even stranger. Schneider, the ABC spokesman, eventually revealed that ABC did send out a story, called a "Medical Minute," on the supplements in question over its News One feed, but the story was unremittingly negative. The script reads, in part, "Taking [the supplements] for six months--either alone or combined--did NOT reduce arthritis knee pain when compared to the control group." (original emphasis)
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."