The controversy that erupted March 15 over a video news release from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, which aimed to increase public support for Medicare reform, has yielded several interesting ripple effects. To recap, that particular VNR took the form of a fake news broadcast, complete with fake reporters asking scripted softball questions. The spots aired, apparently unedited and unidentified, on dozens of newscasts.
On March 18, a coalition of several prominent journalism organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, released a joint letter of protest. The Radio-Television News Directors Association did not exactly protest, but instead clarified its guidelines on the use of VNRs in newscasts. Not too surprisingly, so far the websites of HHS and the Public Relations Society of America are silent on this matter. Hilariously, Karen Ryan – the woman who pretended to be a reporter in the VNR – is outraged that she was misidentified as an “actress,” rather than as a public relations professional. All of this is interesting, but I think the journalism community is generally missing the forest for the trees here.
The problem is not that the federal government created a VNR to promote a political hot potato. Rather, the problem is that some journalists and editors apparently have no qualms about airing or publishing PR-supplied materials without identifying the source. This is a huge problem that I’ve written about in CONTENTIOUS.