Fake News Takes Over Airwaves, Reporters Fall Asleep

Reporters have been handed a great story, where most of the reporting has already been done for them - yet they ignore it.

This week, lost in the unhealthy obsession with what Katie Couric’s daughters and green grocer think about her move to the CBS News anchor chair, was an actual news story that both business and media reporters should be all over.

As CJR Daily noted yesterday, the New York Times reported on a study by the Center for Media And Democracy that found an alarming number of local television news stations across the country are still airing manufactured reports as news without disclosing that the segments are actually produced by corporations pitching new products. At the same time as their report was published, the Center for Media and Democracy and the Free Press — a media reform organization — also filed a complaint with the FCC, calling for mandatory on-screen labeling of all VNR’s, so that TV viewers know what they’re watching.

This isn’t the first time local news stations have been caught with their hands in the VNR cookie jar; a year ago, the New York Times broke the story of the Bush administration’s use of VNRs to promote some of its policies, and the willingness of some local news stations to run the videos without disclosing where they came from. The FCC subsequently issued a stern warning to stations that when broadcasting these video news releases they “generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing,” and threatened to fine violators.

But the most recent study of VNR use raises all kinds of interesting question we haven’t seen answered by the reporters who should be covering the story. Why do stations run these things? How accurate are they — are they just ads for companies’ services, or are they actually useful bits of information? This would seem to be fertile ground for both business and media reporters, as it concerns issues vitally important to both beats. (And, since VNRs are replacing actual reporting and, presumably, reporting jobs, one would think this story might catch the attention of more than just a handful of journalists.)

NPR was one of the only outlets to pick up the story yesterday, and reporter David Folkenflik managed to speak to some of the people mentioned in the study. Douglas Simon, CEO of D. S. Simon Productions, the company that created one of the VNR’s used by a news program, told NPR that “[t]he public-relations business exists for people to put a megaphone on their messaging … And if we can create content that has value for viewers, as the journalists feel, then we’re putting a megaphone to the client’s message.”

Bloggers however, as we found yesterday, have been exploring angles the press is missing. Their reporting (yes, reporting — some appear to have actually read the study, which many journalists seem to have skipped) found that over 80 percent of the stations named in the study are owned by media conglomerates. A list provided by CMD shows that stations owned by Sinclair, Fox Television and Clear Channel look to be some of the worst offenders. (The Times story curiously omits this, as well as the fact that two of the stations are owned by the New York Times Co.)

We were hoping we’d see some follow-up pieces today; it’s hard to understand why so many business and media writers seem to think that this is a non-story.

But then, we guess they need to keep those phone lines open, just in case Katie Couric’s hairdresser has a bit of gossip to share.

Correction: The above has been corrected to reflect that the Center for Media and Democracy was the author of the study about VNRs.

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