Note to media watchdogs: Don't expect to be able to impugn the integrity of KGTV-10 News without a fight.
In "Still Not the News," a Nov. 14 report on a little journalistic parasite known as a video news release (VNR), two organizations-Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy-criticized 46 stations nationwide for airing commercial public-relations pitches made to look like news stories. Three of the stations named are in San Diego.
Two of the three-XETV Fox 6 and KFMB Channel 8-copped to making mistakes.
On June 20, Fox 6 anchor Brian Christie read a story promoting a new airport-runway-signal system that came directly from a video pitch funded by Siemens, which developed the signal systems. CityBeat was unable to reach news director Tauna Lange at press time, but she told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the station had an "unwritten" policy against using VNRs and said it'll be reinforced in writing.
On Oct. 24, Channel 8 aired a VNR in its entirety. The story, a light feature about tasty Halloween treats and the history of the Jack O' Lantern, was packaged by a PR company called Medialink, paid for by General Mills and "reported" by Medialink's Mike Morris, who was passed off by Channel 8 in its 5 a.m. broadcast as a journalist. The piece directs viewers to Bettycrocker.com, a General Mills company, for Halloween dessert ideas.
Channel 8 news director Fred D'Ambrosi said it was an accidental mistake by a fill-in, early-morning producer, who thought the feed was a legitimate syndicated feature story. "In the more than 1,700 hours of news programming we do in a year, they found one error," D'Ambrosi told CityBeat. "And it was an honest mistake. It's a violation of our policy."
The producer didn't watch the piece the whole way through, D'Ambrosi said. "He scanned the first minute of it and didn't look at the last 20 seconds and missed the fact that there was a plug at the end for Betty Crocker cookies."
VNRs are fed through the same electronic services that provide news content, but typically they are clearly labeled as VNRs.
But then there's the case of KGTV. The station's 10 News on Aug. 24 aired a story about dealers attempting to sell cars damaged by Hurricane Katrina floodwaters in markets around the United States. The station had gotten the idea from a Medialink VNR funded by CARFAX.com, a company that provides detailed auto histories for its customers. The station used video footage and an on-screen interview of a CARFAX representative in its piece, which was reported by consumer reporter Marti Emerald and also included additional research by 10 News staff.
In its report, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) said Emerald "adopted her own narrated version of the story, which once again was built entirely from the VNR. Halfway through the story, KGTV-10 flashed an on-screen label that read "Courtesy of Carfax.com,' although the disclosure was so brief that it would be easy for viewers to mistakenly assume that CARFAX was only responsible for one brief clip, instead of the entire news story."
In a written response provided to CityBeat, KGTV managing editor J.W. August says the station credited CARFAX four different times, including three screen credits shown for a combined 20 seconds. CityBeat viewed the segment. Thirteen of those 20 seconds contained a credit to CARFAX for on-screen consumer tips.
August said the VNR provided a good news idea. "In our case, we were looking for some sound from CARFAX because they track car histories for consumers-so it wasn't like we were flailing around trying to make up a damn story," August wrote in an e-mail to CityBeat. "We don't lack for subject matter."
CMD researcher Diane Farsetta said the report's authors attempted to imagine themselves as viewers. From what they saw, would viewers know that all the video and interviews were provided by CARFAX? The determination they came to was that viewers would come away thinking that only one video clip came from CARFAX and that the interview with a CARFAX representative might have been conducted by a journalist, and it was not.
"We think that just having someone on the air saying, "Look this is someone from CARFAX.com talking right now,' we don't think that that in any way relays to the viewer that this sound bite or this video is actually from CARFAX.com's PR firm," Farsetta said, adding that it would have been appropriate for KGTV to keep a source credit onscreen for the duration of the video.
It's not about news content, she said; it's all about disclosure.
Disagreement over KGTV aside, the CMD report's co-author, Daniel Price, told CityBeat, "the problem is that a lot of these stations are essentially passing off corporate-funded advertisement as objective journalism, and that's what we object to. We're not asking for VNRs to be banned or censored. We're just asking them to be labeled."
Price said he and Farsetta were meticulous in their observations because the report would be forwarded on to the Federal Communications Commission. CMD filed a formal complaint with the FCC about the use of VNRs. Price said the FCC is investigating despite lobbying by trade groups representing TV news stations and the PR industry. FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has expressed concern publicly about VNRs, saying that failing to adequate disclose their funders is a violation of federal law.
"In April 2005," Price said, "the FCC sent out a public notice to stations reminding them that whenever a VNR is broadcast, that whenever a VNR is used, both broadcast and cable channels are under obligation to disclose the nature of the story."
In the recent report, CMD claims that nearly 90 percent of the stations cited made no effort at all to disclose the origin of the story. The group's first report, released in April, cited 77 TV stations for using VNRs without disclosure. Ten of those were repeat offenders in the second report.
For his part, KFMB's D'Ambrosi thinks it's good that watchdogs are keeping an eye on the news. "I think we all need critics, and I'd say this to viewers who write us about mistakes or problems or questions, I think it makes us better. I think it keeps us on our toes, and I think people should be critical of what they see and read in the media."