Fake news

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The term fake news has become synonymous with government and corporate sponsored pre-packaged news provided as video news releases (VNRs) and audio news releases (ANRs) to news outlets.

CMD reports on fake news

"Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed" is the title of a report released on April 6, 2006, by the Center for Media and Democracy. The multi-media report tracked television stations' use of selected VNRs over 10 months. The report summary states: "CMD identified 77 television stations, from those in the largest to the smallest markets, that aired these VNRs or related satellite media tours (SMTs) in 98 separate instances, without disclosure to viewers. Collectively, these 77 stations reach more than half of the U.S. population. ... In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients' messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research. More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety." [1]

On November 14, 2006, CMD issued a follow-up report, "Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs." Although the research period for this report was shorter -- only six months -- dozens more undisclosed VNR broadcasts were documented. The report summary states: "Of the 54 total VNR broadcasts described in this report, 48 provided no disclosure of the nature or source of the sponsored video. In the six other cases, disclosure was fleeting and often ambiguous." [2]

Along with the release of each report, CMD and the media reform group Free Press filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requesting enforcement of the Commission's sponsorship identification requirements with regard to VNRs. In August 2006, the FCC sent letters of inquiry to the owners of the 77 television stations named in CMD's first report. [3] [4] (PDF)

Fake news fines

In September 2007, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission issued two notices of apparent liability, announcing its intention to fine Comcast Corporation $4000 for each of its regional cable channel CN8's five undisclosed VNR broadcasts that were documented in the Center for Media and Democracy's "Still Not the News" report [5], for a total of $20,000. [6]

In the first notice, for CN8's broadcast of the Nelson's Rescue Sleep VNR [7], the FCC said that the "extensive images and mentions of the product" triggered the need for VNR disclosure. [8] The second notice was for CN8's broadcast of the General Mills (Wheaties) [9], Trend Micro [10], Allstate [11], and General Mills (Bisquick) [12] VNRs. In it, the FCC broadened its explanation for the need for VNR disclosure, saying that "the VNR itself was the 'valuable consideration' provided to CN8." The second notice also faults CN8's broadcast of the four VNRs, saying their promotional content goes far beyond the acceptable "fleeting or transient references to products or brand names." [13]

History of the term "fake news"

A search of the Nexis media database indicates that the term was initially used more broadly. In May 1989 Adweek writer Barbara Lippert panned ads in which former newsreader Linda Ellerbee appeared "in a fake news setting" hustling Maxwell House coffee. In August that year Ad Day's Ed Buxton criticized the use of "the fake news bite" where reporters re-enacted news events as part of a news story.

However, it was a cover article by David Lieberman titled "Fake News" in the February 1992 edition of TV Guide that popularized the term. In his article Lieberman took the media and PR industry to task over video news releases. He argued that if footage from VNR's were used in news it should be labelled so that viewers were aware of its origin. If not, he argued, media outlets risked undermining their own credibility if they "pretend out of pride that what they broadcast is real news, instead of labeling it for what it is."

"There's a good chance that some of the news they [the public] see will be fake. Not that it's necessarily inaccurate. Just that it was made to plug something else. And it's something the PR community has grown skillful at providing," he wrote. The original article generated a dismissive response from the PR industry. However, in June 1992 the Public Relations Service Council saw the need to assemble a committee to develop standards governing the level of disclosure in VNR's.

In April 1993 TV Guide once more returned to the subject with an article titled Fake News: All the PR that News Can Use". (See the Video news releases article for a more detailed review of the responses to Lieberman's articles.)

While controversy over VNR's diminished in the 1990's, when it resurfaced in 2004 following a Government Accountability Office investigation into government funded VNR's, the fake news description was well established.

In late June 2005 the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment barring the White House and federal agencies for one year from contracting with PR firms and journalists to secretly promote policies through the use of fake news. "The passage of this amendment is a critical victory for the American people who, as a result of these secret government contracts with writers, broadcasters, and public relations specialists, have been unable to determine whether they are receiving real, objective news or government-sponsored propaganda," said Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who chairs the Future of American Media Caucus and sponsored the amendment.

"A properly functioning democracy depends on a news media that is free of any conflicts-of-interest, especially with the government that it is supposed to be holding accountable." [14]

What to do if you encounter Fake News on your local TV station

What should you do if you see or hear what you believe to be a Video News Release?

First, try to confirm that the segment was, in fact, a VNR:

Record all identifying information about the segment: Who was the reporter? What was the subject matter? What date and time was it broadcast? Was there any mention of the origin of the segment or disclosure that it was a paid piece? What made you think it was a VNR?

Call the station that broadcast the suspected VNR and ask to speak to the Managing Editor of the news department.  If he or she doesn’t respond, then call back and ask to speak with the station manager. When you get someone in charge, identify the segment clearly and ask if the segment was a video news release. How did news segment originate? How did the reporter get the idea to cover that subject? Why was it covered the particular way it was (e.g., promoting one product, or one side of an issue only?) If they admit it was a commercially-produced VNR and that it was broadcast without being identified as such, ask them to broadcast a notice or correction on TV letting their audience know the segment was paid fake news. If they refuse, notify them that that is a reportable offense to the FCC. (Then report it -- see below for information on how to do this).

If they say they got the segment pre-packaged from an affiliate, get the name of the affiliate and the name of the person who sent it, and pursue it there, moving up the news department chain until you get someone who is accountable. (Then ask them the same questions to try and nail down the origin of the segment). If they refuse to give you any information, notify them that broadcasting a fake news segment without identifying it as such, or in return for compensation or other valuable consideration from a political or corporate entity, is a reportable offense to the FCC. (Then report it - see below).

Other steps you can take to discourage the broadcast of VNRs in your area

Assuming the segment in question is, in fact, an unattributed VNR, you could also write a letter to the editor of the local paper alerting the public to the fake news being broadcast on that station.  Include information about what helped you identify it as fake, so others know how to spot them also. You could also contact a competing station to tell them about the story (although they might not pursue it if their own house is not clean). You could contact the local media reporter or a reporter at a local paper to initiate a story.  You could also send a a letter to your congressional rep and senators complaining about the station’s action and asking them to refer the matter to the FCC. 

How to Report VNRs to the FCC

Go to FCC.gov. On the right side of the home page, under the column titled "Bureaus and Offices," click on "Enforcement." This takes you to the Enforcement Page. On the right side of the page, under "What We Do," click on "Broadcast Issues." On the next page, under "Information You Can Use," click on the fifth line down that says, "Payola and Sponsorship Identification." There you will find the sections of the Communications Act that require broadcasters to disclose whether broadcasted matter has been aired in exchange for money, services or other valuable consideration. The page contains a table listing enforcement actions that have been taken, with links to descriptions of those actions. Below the table are instructions about How to File a Complaint. You can also access information on how to file a complaint with the FCC by clicking here.

FCC's published notice to broadcasters about VNRs

Also, on April 15, 2005, the FCC published a reminder to broadcast licensees, cable operators and other of requirements applicable to video news releases. A PDF copy of that reminder is here (pdf). This document contains the sponsorship identification rules broadcasters must follow, and a statement by FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps on the matter of VNRs, saying people in this country have a right to know where their news is coming from, and reminding broadcasters that they have to disclose government or corporate-generated "news" sources.

SourceWatch resources

External links

Government reports on Williams/Ketchum PR contracts