Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Corporate Propaganda Masquerading as News

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story today about an FCC investigation into the use of corporate propaganda in local news stories. The concern is that stations use material from Video News Releases (VNRs) in news stories without letting the viewers know about the source of that footage.

Now, as one who has edited more than a few VNRs in her day, I know they are created exactly for that purpose. As the article states, a VNR is ". . . a prepackaged segment that looks and sounds like journalistically reported information but is produced by either a public relations firm or a government body with a vested interest in the product or service being described." Many of the VNRs I edited consisted of a complete cut story; a second version of the story with the "correspondent" voice over on a separate audio track so that it could be replaced with the local reporter's voice; and a selection of material that could be used in a piece created independently by the station.

If the stations use the latter and put in either an audio or video ID of the footage--no problem. I know I would want to know that some company has developed a new drug to combat breast cancer. But I would also want to know any downside of the new product, or that its release in general use is years away--information I'm not going to get in a corporate promotional piece. Unfortunately, I would venture to say that many times the piece gets aired as is--down to the script provided by the company. That is the danger.

The disturbing part of the article to me is that the FCC is just now getting to an investigation of this issue. VNRs masquerading as hard news have been around for at least 20 years. And while it still is an important issue to face, the opportunity for this disguised propaganda to be spread over the internet through various kinds outlets is more serious as the next generation gets most of their news from the web. I wonder how long it will take the government to address that aspect of this issue.

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