VNR Redux

Anyone surprised that local TV keeps airing fake news?

Seems our old friend, the Video News Release, is back—or more likely, never left us in the first place. The Center for Media and Democracy dug up three recent cases where a single television station passed VNRs as legit news reports.

In case you’ve forgotten, VNRs are television news spots prepared by corporations or public agencies, that are then presented as straight news by TV news outlets who conveniently fail to disclose the fact that these things are blatant PR.

VNRs were first dragged into public consciousness back in 2004, when CJR helped expose Karen Ryan—a PR flack paid by the government to anchor fake news stories promoting the Medicare law and its supposed benefits. The VNRs were sent out to local affiliates across the county on CNN’s video wire and played as “news” on stations that didn’t inform viewers that they were watching government propaganda from the Department of Health and Human Services. The issue has popped up intermittently since then, but things have been quiet on the VNR front. Until now.

The Center for Media and Democracy reported yesterday that WGTU-TV 29 in Traverse City, Michigan has recently aired three of these corporate commercials. They include:

An entire, pre-packaged VNR funded by the financial company Capital One, without disclosure; an entire, pre-packaged VNR funded by the communications company Harris Corporation, without disclosure; and an entire, pre-packaged VNR funded by the farm equipment company John Deere. In this case, the original VNR contained brief, on-screen and verbal notifications of the sponsor. By playing the entire VNR, WGTU provided “passive disclosure” to its viewers.

Just last month, the FCC issued five fines against Comcast for broadcasting VNRs without disclosure. We’re interested to see if it does the same to WGTU, or its owner, Max Media.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.