Frightening Fake News

This Halloween, it’s not ghouls and goblins you should be afraid of; it’s an insidious fake news invasion, and it may be heading your way – if it’s not already in your midst.

Alright, so that may be overly dramatic, but we should all be concerned with fake news and how it continues to spread in our communities despite years of public outcry. “Fake news” is advertising that is embedded in news segments and disguised as real news. The products and segments are never disclosed to the viewers as paid advertisements, and understaffed newsrooms all over the country are increasingly airing fake news because it saves them the time and expense of producing real news that serves the public interest.

Fake news has no place in our newscasts, and it’s clearly against Federal Communications Commission rules. The FCC, however, has left a large, well-documented body of complaints lingering, and has yet to stop the practice. The longer the FCC sits on its hands, the further the fake news invasion spreads. If you can document fake news in your community, we need your help. But first, read why.

Disappointing Results

In 2006 and 2007, Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) led a charge against the practice, and sent a petition to the FCC, backed by over 40,000 supporters, urging the agency to curb fake news. CMD’s research found 110 TV stations that broadcast fake news, and documented 138 instances of undisclosed fake news in its report.

Disappointingly, five years later and only two of Free Press and CMD’s 138 complaints resulted in action by the FCC. Two complaints against Comcast yielded fines totaling a measly $20,000.

And while the FCC drags its feet, fake news continues to fester. Last month, after the L.A. Times shed light on new instances of fake news, we again asked the FCC to hold broadcasters accountable. Over 10,000 people have signed our latest petition to the agency in just a few weeks.

So what about the other 136 complaints? Unfortunately, FCC rules protect dismissed complaints, so we have no way of knowing how many complaints may have been let go over the years under the radar. It’s also possible that the FCC has yet to review the bulk of these complaints, years after they were filed. The FCC must show swiftness and diligence if it intends to dissuade broadcasters from flouting the rules and airing fake news. Two out of 138 isn’t what I would call a stellar report card.

More Documentation Needed

Little threat of disciplinary action means it’s open season for broadcasters to keep airing fake news. James Rainey’s L.A. Times articles documented new instances of fake news on ten TV stations across the country. His subject, Elizabeth Werner, is a “toy expert” (read: spokesperson) hired by DWJ Television, which has in turn received big bucks to promote toys via satellite media tours. According to Rainey, “Werner does a few tours a year, as do spokespeople who pitch other products like tech gear and fashion, with DWJ as middleman. And the firm is just one of several production companies and PR firms pumping the pay-to-play material out to local news stations around America.”

I was curious. I looked DWJ up on YouTube and discovered a lengthy roster of spokespeople pitching all sorts of products there. Follow-up searches yielded plenty of examples of DWJ spokespeople appearing on the news, including on some of the same stations Elizabeth Werner has pitched. My favorite is Lisa Beres, a “certified green building expert” who touts products that purport to keep your home safe from dangerous toxins. She goes from station to station with her table of goodies, making claims that an air purifier (available at Lowes.com!) in every room will protect you from a newly constructed home that is off-gassing chemicals. Whatever your opinion on green-washing, this ain’t news, folks. Watch:

Examples such as Elizabeth Werner and Lisa Beres are just the tip of the iceberg. Only well-documented instances of fake news will demonstrate this growing problem to the FCC and compel them to take action.

But we need your help documenting fake news. Do you think fake news has invaded your air waves? If so, help us collect an iron-clad case against broadcasters who are getting away with murder – again, it’s nearly Halloween.

Free Press is crowd-sourcing the collection of fake news at MediaFAIL.com, and we could use your contribution. Add your fake news fails to the site so we can stop fake news dead in it’s tracks.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good