Is the News You're Watching Real or Canned?, Prof. Jeff McCall '76 Asks

Is the News You're Watching Real or Canned?, Prof. Jeff McCall '76 Asks

June 21, 2006

Jeff McCall 2006.jpgJune 21, 2006, Greencastle, Ind. - Video news releases, or VNRs, "are prepackaged video reports produced by public relations firms, corporations or even the government. They look like real news stories," explains Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University. "The problem, of course, is that these organizations have selfish motives for wanting to insert their highly spun messages into local newscasts."

While most local television stations won't use the "stealth reports," Dr. McCall, writing in the Indianapolis Star, says "PR spin disguised as news... damages the image of the many broadcasters who don't use VNRs. When you tune in your local news, you expect to see reports prepared by professional journalists using their independent judgment as to which issues have news value. VNRs don't qualify as that kind of 'real' news, but audiences don't necessarily know which stations are using VNRs and which aren't."

The professor, a 1976 graduate of DePauw, cites a ten-month survey by the Center for Media and Democracy. Sixty nine local newscasts around the nation used at least one of the 36 VNRs the organization tracked, a small percentage of the "hand-out stories" that made the rounds in that period of time. 

"Two-thirds of the offending stations were in the 50 largest television markets, so this isn't just a problem at low-budget, small-market stations," notes McCall. "Products pushed in these 'news' reports included cars, electronics, pharmaceuticals and food. The major concern highlighted by the CMD is that the guilty stations do not disclose to the audience the source of this material. It is not just a matter of ethics; it is also a legal problem. Federal Communications Commission rules require that the identity of such messages be disclosed on air. Not only was the source not disclosed in the sampled VNR reports, but also many broadcasters used their own graphics to create the appearance of local origination."

In conclusion, McCall writes, "Using broadcast material provided by public relations firms is a cheap and easy way for news operations to fill airtime, but as FCC commissioner Michael Coppsmay 2006 fox mccall.jpg has said, a news story 'cannot be judged without knowing its source.' Viewers shouldn't have to wonder whether each report about electronics or pharmaceuticals is real news or PR puffery. Labeling the sources of outside input, as required by the FCC, helps audiences with that judging process. Not using VNR material at all would be even better, thus diminishing the blurring line between fantasy and reality."

Read the complete op-ed at College

Jeff McCall was quoted yesterday in an Inside Higher Ed story that examined plans of the TV program Trading Spouses to highlight a professor in an upcoming episode. Learn more here.

Source: Indianapolis Star