Monday, March 14, 2005

Video News Releases, Propaganda and the Media

Yesterday's New York Times had an absolute must-read article on the Bush "message machine" and its ability to get "video news releases" (VNRs) placed, in many cases unedited, on local news programs. In many ways, I don't blame the Bush administration for using this tactic - VNRs are just sophisticated examples of the kind of spin you see daily in the White House press briefings. No one expects political actors to offer criticisms of their own positions and programs. And few would argue that, in the age of 24/7 news cycles, political actors should not actively attempt to get their messages out.

But does this tactic amount to domestic "propaganda," which by law cannot be disseminated by the government? Determining what counts as "propaganda" is a tricky endeavor. What, for example, makes these VNRs different from run-of-the-mill press releases? One thing is that press releases are distributed on agency letterhead and, as a result, anyone reading them knows exactly who the source is. Because the distribution of VNRs is rather complex, the provenance of the piece may not be obvious. So local news stations may very well think that the piece was produced by their parent network.

Does this mean the government have an obligation to make it crystal clear that it is the source of a VNR? I think so, though failure to meet this obligation probably isn't a gross ethical violation. At any rate, most of the VNRs do contain some hint of the original source. For example, one piece for the Agriculture Department ends, "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." It may be brief - and may not be enough to tip the average viewer to what's going on - but I think it meets the government's obligation for sourcing. (Of course, some VNRs have been tailored for certain stations, as in the case of one Ag Department piece for an Illinois station that ended, "With the U.S.D.A., I'm Bob Ellison, reporting for 'The Morning Show'." That can sound as though Ellison is "on location with the U.S.D.A." This is more problematic.) Ultimately, the sourcing on these things is blurry, but as long as there's no disinformation in them, I think they're acceptable.

Far more troubling is the way local news stations use VNRs. The news directors the Times reporters talked to said they don't run them, but in fact they were shown to have done so. Local stations are under pressure to do more with fewer resources and this makes it hard to resist a pre-packaged news segment, even if it isn't really a news segment at all. Add to that the basic shoddiness of so many local television news divisions and this is fertile hunting ground for public relations specialists. Networks and local affiliates ought to simply prohibit the use of VNRs in any form. Until they do, the average viewer won't really know if they're watching neutral reporting or propaganda.


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