Center for Media and Democracy
November 14, 2008
WASHINGTON The Center for Media Democracy and Free Press today exposed an epidemic of fake news infiltrating local television broadcasts across country. At a press conference in Washington with FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, the groups called for a crackdown on stations that present corporate-sponsored videos as genuine news to an unsuspecting audience.
CMD, which unveiled the results of a 10-month investigation, found scores of local stations slipping commercial “video news releases,” or VNRs, into their regular news programming. The new multimedia report released today includes footage of 36 separate VNRs and their broadcast as “news” by TV stations and networks nationwide, including those in the nation’s biggest markets.
The full report — “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed” — is now available complete with VNR and TV station video footage at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/execsummary.
“It’s shocking to see how product placement moves secretly unfiltered from the boardroom to the newsroom and then straight into our living rooms,” said Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at CMD and co-author of the report. “Local TV broadcasts — the most popular news source in the United States — frequently air VNRs without fact-checking, conducting their own reporting, or disclosing that the footage has been provided and sponsored by big corporations.”
Investigators captured 77 television stations actively disguising sponsored content from companies including General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One to make it look like their own reporting. More than one-third of the time, stations aired fake news stories in their entirety as their own reporting.
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Despite repeated claims from broadcasters that they do not air VNRs as news, the new report reveals just the tip of the iceberg. Instances of fake TV news documented by CMD likely represent less than 1 percent of VNRs distributed to local newsrooms since June 2005. Fraudulent news reports have likely been aired on hundreds of more local newscasts in the past year.
“The president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Barbara Cochran, called fake news ‘kind of like the Loch Ness Monster. Everyone talks about it, but not many people have actually seen it,’ ” said John Stauber, executive director of CMD. “This report drops a big nest of squirming Nessies in the laps of TV journalists. Fake TV news is the worst plagiarism scandal in American journalism, and it must be stopped by labeling all VNRs on screen so viewers can tell if its news or fake news.”
Approximately 80 percent of the stations snared in the investigation are owned by large conglomerates. The list of the worst offenders includes Clear Channel, News Corp./Fox Television, Viacom/CBS, Tribune Co. and Sinclair Broadcast Group – whose Oklahoma City affiliate was caught airing VNRs on six separate occasions.
“The evidence suggests a strong connection between media consolidation and the broadcast of deceptive, pre-packaged propaganda,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press. “When all station owners care about is profit margins, fake news can prove irresistible. After all, VNRs are free. Reporting news that’s meaningful to local communities isn’t. And without decisive government action, the fake news problem will only get worse.”
In conjunction with the report, Free Press launched www.freepress.net/fakenews — urging the public to contact the FCC and demand “No Fake News.”
Free Press and CMD also filed a formal complaint with the FCC, seeking a thorough investigation “to help restore the public trust in the integrity of local news.” The public interest groups want all VNRs be accompanied by a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notifications and verbal announcements disclosing their sources. They also recommended broadcasters be required to file monthly public reports detailing their use of government or corporate-sponsored material. The FCC complaint is available at www.freepress.net/docs/fcc_complaint_4-06-06.pdf