News and ‘News’

In The New York Times this morning: “Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged News.” It’s a neat roundup of how successful the administration has been in producing news segments (video news releases, or VNRs, in industry parlance) that broadcast outlets around the United States uncritically pick up and run as “real news.” The story’s been growing since early last year, when it came to light that a government contractor had produced thinly disguised Bush propaganda stories that hundreds of stations across the nation had run virtually unchanged. The practice has proven so successful for government agencies that at least one state administration, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s here in California, is sending out its own video stories.

The Times makes a couple of obvious points about how government VNRs keep appearing on news shows: First, that despite an industry code of ethics that frowns on the practice, the government’s news releases keep showing up on the air because TV news departments are often doing more programming with fewer resources, so there’s unceasing pressure to find stuff to fill out the newscast. Second, it’s common practice for stations to take stories from “network feeds” to which they subscribe and rework them to fit their own local needs.

This is something we did frequently on our half-hour daily news show on TechTV; the reality is that when you’re under the gun to get something on the air — and for our show, we needed to produce 22 minutes of something every day to go along with our 8 minutes of commercials — you need external help. Nothing wrong with that. We’re used to newspapers using wire reports, or complementing their own reporters’ work with material from other sources (wires or freelancers). It’s innocuous — no, it can make help you serve your reader or viewer better — if the work is done conscientiously and you’re always careful both to know and to say, when necessary, where the facts you’re reporting come from.

But here’s the danger in putting together news this way. A reporter or producer is handed a story package with an intro and some unknown reporter’s voiceover and standup and given orders to rework it. Depending on factors such as how well the original material is written and how good the video is, the script might get a rewrite, the order of the video shots might be changed, the new reporter will retrack the script and might include his or her own standup. When you see a local reporter doing some way-out-of-town story but still appearing live on the station’s set, you can assume that this is how they did it. The station usually doesn’t disclose what’s going on; I think the general belief is that viewers are smart enough to figure it out, if they care at all.

The problem is that the source of the original material can becomes secondary to getting it on the air; reporters and producers stop thinking about where it’s coming from because their job is to get the story done in time for the show. And pretty soon, the good-news gruel from the State Department Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security blends in with all the stories coming over the feed from CNN and the Associated Press.

At the point you stop thinking about where the information is coming from — and the implications of turning your operation into an accessory for government-produced messages masquerading as news — you’re not in the journalism business anymore. And that’s the bottom line of the Times’s report: It’s not that Bush and Schwarzenegger and their cronies are so damned clever putting out propaganda and calling it news, it’s that so many of the people who are supposed to care enough to recognize the difference simply don’t.

3 Replies to “News and ‘News’”

  1. The fake news phenomenon is far bigger than this current White House abuse. I cover this issue in my consumer guide for the switched-on citizen: We Know What You Want ISBN: 1932857052
    My book also uncovers unethical practices in data mining, viral marketing, supermarkets, governments and white collar cults.
    Let me know if you would like a comment or interview.

  2. I always wrestled with the ethics of this in past jobs (I won’t say which, but you probably have an idea). Basically, it works like this: journalists fly to a far-flung location on a company’s dime, when a company has a new slate of interesting products to sell – a “junket” in the biz. The company doesn’t necessarily force a reporting team to cover a product launch a certain way, but viewers don’t really ever see any negative press come along with the product launch and extra coverage given to the blow-out PR event, either. In that there’s no contract for positive spin, the journalistic organization can justify the tit-for-tat as “balanced” because they’re not necessarily beholden to corporate demands.
    Thus, viewers get to see the Next Big Thing alongside celebrities and splashy media tours, the media gets a good story, perhaps good video, and the company gets decent PR, all for a relatively minor price.
    And again, I don’t think viewers necessarily care. However, the blog Gizmodo recently took some flak from the blogosphere for its paid-for coverage of CeBIT in Germany. Apparently, Siemens footed the bill:

  3. Steve, I know *exactly* what you’re talking about. In fact, in a past capacity, I argued that it was our duty to disclose the fact companies had paid our way to various events or facilities for stories like this. Off the top of my head, I remember us sending people off to Finland, Sweden, Britain, and South Africa — all gratis, thanks to various companies who were interested in having us cover some activity or product. Suffice it to say my arguments didn’t carry the day, though the counter-arguments were never strong. They always seemed to boil down to “everybody does this,” that the process of disclosing all the junkets we’d gone on would be unwieldy, and that the stories we did were independent of the companies. I was never really persuaded by any of that.

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