Fake News

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.

Blog Posts

  • It's All About Trust: The Atlantic's Scientology Problem

    January 15, 2013
    On Monday night, the Atlantic presented a Church of Scientology ad dressed up as a news article. Within hours the piece had been removed and replaced with a note from the editors promising to “review their sponsored content guidelines.”
  • Who’s Paying for the News on Time’s Website?

    November 16, 2012

    More and more news organizations use links to recommendations to keep people on their sites. Recommendations like these would seem to add value for the audience. But are these links being used to embed fake news and pay-for-play content?

  • Conan O'Brien Goes to the Dogs

    May 31, 2012

    If you’ve ever doubted the existence of “fake news” — the trend in which newscasts pass off paid advertisements as actual reporting — these segments, courtesy of the volcanic-haired late-night funnyman, should put those doubts to rest.

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Press Releases

More »


  • Free Press Responds to Newport TV's Copyright Claims

    Free Press rejects Newport TV's claims that it violated the company's copyright when it used certain images in its Change the Channels map.

    July 22, 2011
  • Newport TV Cease and Desist Letter to Free Press

    On July 1, Newport TV sent Free Press a Cease and Desist Letter, alleging a copyright violation, and requested YouTube take down Free Press' "Change the Channels" video.

    July 22, 2011
  • KMSP Notice of Apparent Liability

    Federal Communications Commission fined KMSP for airing commercials masquerading as news segments. These video news releases (VNRs), when aired without disclosure, violate the FCC’s longstanding “sponsorship identification” rules.

    March 25, 2011
More »

Learn More

  • Fighting Media Consolidation

    Consolidation has long run rampant in the news, cable and broadband industries. In all of these cases consumers suffer the consequences.
  • Covert Consolidation

    When you turn on the nightly news, you expect to find competing viewpoints and different perspectives from one station to the next. But in communities across the country, stations that were once fierce competitors have cut staff and merged their newsrooms, in many cases airing the same content on multiple stations in the same market. You can try to change the channel, but all you'll see is the exact same newscast.

  • Rupert Murdoch Scandal

    There are many reasons the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has riveted public attention around the world. It's a story that features all of the classic elements: crimes, betrayal, abuse of power and even a cover-up.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good