In this week's Observer you'll find a story about WFAA-Channel 8's use of a Video News Release (or VNR) in a story it aired in February. VNRs are TV ads filmed to look like news stories, complete with fake reporters. The WFAA segment used shots from a VNR pushing diet supplements. But WFAA is unique only in that it continues to deny its mistake. The report on VNR use from the Center for Media and Democracy identifies 77 stations, including five other Texas stations, that aired part or all of the fake news stories. KTYX-Channel 19 in Tyler, for example, aired two interviews that were covertly sponsored by the companies being discussed and a full, uncut VNR praising General Mills' pancake mix, of all things.
The VNR debate heated up when Congress' Government Accountability Office found in 2004 that the Bush administration's use of them was illegal. (Strangely, Bush's Justice Department declined to prosecute.) In 2005, Congress imposed tougher disclosure rules on the administration, and a bill that would make the restrictions permanent is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.
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That may take care of the federal government's deceptive efforts, but the vast majority of VNRs come from private companies—and TV stations are disturbingly easy to fool. For example, KOKH-Channel 25, Oklahoma City's Fox affiliate, aired part or all of six VNRs. That's out of the mere 36 VNRs tracked in the study from among thousands that are distributed each year. Study co-author Diane Farsetta says the KOKH station manager told her the station was confused about the origin of the footage it was airing, calling it an "honest mistake." Make that six honest mistakes. Farsetta laughed as she recounted the conversation, and said, "You would think journalists in TV newsrooms wouldn't put things on the air that they weren't sure where they were coming from." Yeah, you'd think... --Rick Kennedy