Falling for Fake News

By Scott Libin

With tight budgets and ambitious amounts of air time to fill, some television news departments are turning to non-traditional content providers whose pitch is:

“We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

From Washington to Sacramento, federal and state agencies use video news releases (VNRs) to plant political messages in newscasts at no cost to the stations that carry them, and with no disclosure to viewers.

Some journalists express outrage at the notion of disguising public relations as legitimate news coverage, and of hiding from audiences the actual source of such material. But politicians don’t deserve all the blame. If television stations were adequately staffed and their employees trained to understand the difference between journalism and PR, fake news wouldn’t get on the air.

An investigation by The New York Times says, “Federal agencies are forthright with broadcasters,” but that “records and interviews suggest widespread complicity by television stations.”

Many television stations operate with news staffs that are inexperienced, under-trained and overworked. They produce more hours of news with fewer people in order to generate profit margins that almost any other legal enterprise would envy. Sometimes, when somebody offers a ready-made “news package,” some stations just can’t resist.

The problem is that those packages are often laughably lopsided, as if there were no opposition to the position supported by the producers and providers of such material. The stories are devoid of the diverse voices and perspectives that enrich real journalism, enabling its consumers to reach informed opinions of their own and to make better decisions for themselves.

The Times didn’t determine the total number of occasions on which TV stations have used government-produced VNRs. The newspaper says it did confirm many cases in which such material had made it into newscasts. Confronted with evidence of such instances, most news directors expressed surprise and dismay.

I get the dismay, but not the surprise.

Anyone who knows the way local TV newsrooms work can imagine how it could happen: Newscast producers, often with very little experience, work with surprisingly little support and almost no supervision, especially on overnight and weekend shifts. With big blocks of airtime to fill, huge amounts of copy to write, and virtually no help, they’re lucky if they can find time for a bathroom break, never mind a lunch or dinner hour, during a typical shift.

At many stations, those same producers now not only “stack the show,” selecting stories and the order and format in which they will air; they write much of the newscast themselves. Increasingly, they also edit video, create graphics and perform other tasks once assigned to others.

A ready-to-air “news story” might come in handy now and then, even if it does come from the government or an interest group, and might not hold up well under journalistic scrutiny.

The Times investigation turned up one TV station news director and one representative of a syndicated “news” product who said the inclusion of VNRs was no mistake. They defended the intentional use of government-produced packages in their entirety within newscasts.

That’s difficult for me to understand. The first obligation of journalism is to the reader, viewer or listener. The first obligation of PR is to the client. And when the client is the government, which journalists claim to cover with independence and integrity, the distinction becomes critical.

The Times found far more news directors who said they intended to institute measures that would identify clearly for viewers any material produced by advocacy groups, rather than by news organizations.

Fake news doesn’t always slip through stations’ systems undetected. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration recently fed a VNR in support of revising certain labor regulations. Despite claims by political opponents and opinion writers, I can find no evidence that the piece aired in its entirety on even a single station, although some did stories of their own about the workplace issue and about the controversy surrounding the VNR.

That’s the approach approved by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, according to its president, Barbara Cochran, who is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. Yet RTNDA itself recently provided television stations three “spots” in support of “Sunshine Week,” an open-government effort begun by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The RTNDA scripts endorse a specific bill currently before the U.S. Senate; they advocate a federal shield law for reporters; and they criticize government secrecy. They neither include nor acknowledge any opposition to RTNDA’s position on these issues, yet the association’s Web site suggests that stations run the “spots” as news stories. The RTNDA magazine encourages “assign(ing) a reporter or anchor to at least re-track or re-purpose these spots.”

As a journalist and RTNDA member, I’m sympathetic to the cause, but I know there are other opinions. Some people think journalists should have less access and protection, not more. I don’t share those views, but I believe responsible reporting should include them.

After I asked Cochran to comment on the issue, RTNDA added the following sentences to the Web page containing the scripts: “As with any material from an outside source, if you use these materials you should label clearly where they came from. Keep in mind RTNDA’s Code of Ethics, which states that professional journalists should ‘clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders.’”

An ASNE Web site on the same issues (www.sunshineweek.org) includes opposing views in the stories it provides newspapers for publication.

Newspapers have been known to reprint press releases verbatim or nearly so, especially at papers with smaller circulation and smaller staffs.

TV stations, even in medium to large markets, operate with quite limited investment in employees, and especially modest amounts spent on training. And free content — even if it isn’t quite up to the standards of journalism — helps control expenses even further.

For some companies, even in the news business, the erosion of credibility counts only if and when it affects the bottom line. Until that happens, I’m afraid nothing will change.

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