NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Prior Restraints · Oct. 13, 2006
FCC’s probe into video news releases draws fire
Oct. 13, 2006 · A group of broadcast news directors is calling on a government agency to stop its inquiry into the use of prepared video news releases, saying the probe infringes on news outlets’ First Amendment rights and has a chilling effect on broadcasters.
But a media criticism group that authored the study that prompted the Federal Communications Commission inquiry called the group’s reaction “absurd,” saying viewers deserve to know where their news comes from.
In August, the FCC launched an investigation into television stations’ use of video news releases (VNRs), packaged segments typically produced by public relations firms and sent to television stations. An April study by the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy found that 77 television stations used the segments over a 10-month period without disclosing to viewers where the segments came from.
In an Oct. 5 letter to the FCC, the Radio-Television News Directors Association asked the agency to halt its probe and rescind letters of inquiry sent to the stations mentioned in the April report.
In the letter, the association’s lawyers call the inquiry “an unprecendented regulatory intrusion into newsroom operations,” and distinguish between voluntary ethics guidelines adopted by the media and those imposed by the government.
The association’s long-standing ethics policy states that journalists must clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders. But the group’s letter to the FCC said “the First Amendment clearly restricts governmental constraints aimed at the same or similar objectives.”
The letter states that television stations have dropped the use of video news releases because of the “lack of clear guidance” from the FCC. That is depriving viewers of “video that might explain or help illustrate the promises of a newly released life-altering drug, or the potentially fatal dangers posed by a common food,” the letter said.
Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy and co-author of the April report, said the group supports the inquiry. The idea that the investigation has a chilling effect on journalists is “absurd,” she said.
“They might have a point if anyone was talking about banning VNRs,” Farsetta said. “We’re talking about disclosing VNRs.”
The FCC’s probe centers on whether the stations violated communications regulations requiring stations to disclose sponsorship identification. If the investigation finds that they violated the rules, the FCC could fine stations up to $32,500 per violation and begin proceedings to revoke their licenses.
The news directors association said those rules do not apply when the station did not receive money or other consideration for the material, and when the broadcast did not discuss a political matter or one of public importance.