How much of our local news is propaganda? Stations are slipping sponsored “video news releases” — promotional segments designed to look like objective news reports — into their regular programming. And increasingly they’re using these VNRs without identifying them as such. This deception is illegal under federal law and Federal Communications Commission rules.
Presenting VNRs as actual news breaches the trust between local stations and their communities. By disguising advertisements as news, stations violate both the spirit and the letter of their broadcast licenses, which obligate them to use the airwaves to serve the public.
It’s easy to see why broadcasters use VNRs: The segments are valuable to the sponsors that create them, but come free to the station. As media consolidation continues to take its toll on TV newsrooms in the form of staff and budget cuts, station owners save money and boost profits by airing VNRs instead of sending journalists into the field to do real reporting.
The FCC’s weak enforcement of its disclosure rules allows broadcasters to use VNRs in their newscasts — as long as they attribute the source. Better enforcement would hold broadcasters to a higher standard and help us identify the companies pushing the products showcased in VNRs. Then we’d know who’s behind those lists for “hot cars” or “safe toys for the holidays.” We deserve to know whether we’re watching news or advertisements.