Fake News Invasion

Fake news is invading our airwaves, and the Federal Communications Commission is standing idly by as it happens. In an age when consumers can mute and fast-forward commercial breaks, advertisers are looking for ways to sell you products where you’re least expecting it: Embedded into your local news.

A recent Los Angeles Times exposé revealed that paid spokespeople are hawking their wares on local news stations during what appears to viewers as genuine news segments. The stations never identify the spokespeople as paid shills for companies, but rather present them as experts. They’re misleading viewers, and they’re getting away with it.

This week, Free Press filed a letter asking the FCC to take action to put an end to fake news. The letter urges the FCC to investigate new instances of fake news, conclude its review of pending complaints and put new rules on the books that would require stricter and more prominent disclosure of paid spots.

When Slick PR Bleeds Into Newscasts

You’ve seen it before: A news story about the most popular cars of the summer, for example, finds its way into a nightly newscast. It’s slicker than the rest of the show, and for good reason: It was paid for by the car manufacturer itself, and placed by a PR firm. And your local station never disclosed the connection.

Watch the video:

Or imagine how a hospital would benefit if it paid its local news station for exclusive mention in a story about a promising new cancer treatment. A journalist employed by the local station could interview the hospital’s lead doctors, informing viewers of their various awards and qualifications. The increased exposure would give the hospital an edge over other local hospitals that offer the same treatment. Sound ridiculous? It really happened.

Fake news is more prevalent now than it has ever been. Media consolidation has gutted newsrooms. Crippled by job cuts, local stations no longer have the capacity to produce real news that matters to our communities. Fake news helps fill the news holes left behind when actual reporting is on the chopping block. Instead of authentic, credible reporting, the local news is becoming one long commercial break before the commercial break. The basic function of the news as an independent source of information is fatally undermined when PR firms, and not editors and reporters, are writing and appearing in the stories.

Still Waiting for FCC Action

Fake news is nothing new. It started with Video News Releases (VNRs) -- news stories produced by PR firms that are paid to create fake news featuring their client’s product. In 2006 and 2007, Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy exposed 123 stations that regularly aired VNRs without informing viewers that the spots were paid advertisements. The public was outraged, and citizens wrote to the FCC in droves to demand an end to the practice.

Three years later, we are still waiting for the FCC to take a stand. While we wait, advertisers are inventing new ways to insert their products into our news programs. Their latest tactic is the paid “expert.” These hucksters appear on live newscasts purporting to be experts on everything from toys to travel. Without saying a word, anchors hand the microphone to these paid spokespeople and provide them with a free platform to pitch products they have, in some cases, been paid over $10,000 an item to promote.

Formal complaints have languished at the FCC for years, sending a clear message to broadcasters: they can get away with airing fake news. The FCC has the legal authority to fine stations that fail to disclose fake news. A station can be fined up to $37,500 for each fake news story they air without disclosure. They also have the authority to strengthen rules to ensure that disclosures can actually be read and heard by viewers and listeners.

If you’re as outraged as we are that commercials are hidden in our newscasts, you can take action, too. Tell the FCC to enforce its own rules and put an end to fake news.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good