Thursday, August 17, 2006

Newsfakers -- VNR Edition

The Federal Communications Commission is now asking dozens of TV stations how they used Video News Releases (VNR's) in their newscasts. These are free packaged reports already written, edited, and ready to air as if a reporter had done them. Many of them deal with health and consumer issues. Some are lifestyle features. But all of them are usually produced by a PR firm on behalf of a major corporation shilling a product.

Most stations never run them straight. Some "re-track" them, substituting the local anchor's voice or a reporter's voice for the canned announcer, perhaps rewriting some of the copy to sound less commercial.

Oodles of these handouts are on the news feeds every day. But before you accuse TV stations of selling out to corporate America, you need to understand the two main uses of VNR's:

Stock footage. Many stations chuck the promotional copy with a VNR and just save the footage if it can be used another time. A VNR on a stop-smoking pill may contain footage of people smoking in public or cigarettes being made -- something that may be handy for smoking stories in the future. Every VNR I've seen says, "this footage is for your free and unrestricted use." VNR footage is especially handy for medical stories where it's hard to get surgery video or shots of a particular drug.

Filling time. This is where VNR's get abused. Producers in small markets with more news time than resources to fill it will plug in one of these pre-packaged pieces. Morning shows are especially vulnerable since staffers are trying to fill at least 90 minutes of air time every day. CNN and the networks' feed services do a very good job of offering a lot of non-VNR material to producers, but VNR's often make it onto the air simply because no "other news" is out there. Desperation to make a deadline and fill dead air will drive you to do it.

One important point: stations are not paid to air VNR's. Nobody's pressuring them to air them. I get e-mail every day from groups hawking free footage or guest interview opportunties (mainly from book authors or partisan talking heads), all of which I politely ignore. Producers aren't on a mission to mislead the public or boost a company's stock.

Ninety-five percent of VNR's never make air on KOLD News 13. We a regularly use video releases from the Journal Of The American Medical Association (JAMA), but I put these in a different league than most VNR's because they're put out by a respected, credible organziation that's not out to sell something. However, when we use JAMA material, we don't use the pre-narrated packages they send out. We'll strip some video, harvest some bites, rewrite the copy, check the facts, and do it our way.

I have never run a straight VNR on my newscasts. I have used VNR footage in the past to compliment facts and reporting we've done on our own, but I can count on one hand the number of stories that relied on VNR footage in 12 years of producing. Most of the VNR's on the wires aren't worth airtime in the first place, and with so much going on in Tucson and the world they don't put a blip on my radar.

If the FCC wants to investigate how VNR's are making it into newscasts, they also need to investigate the staffing situations of the stations airing them and the experience of the people putting them on the air. Seasoned producers don't need no stinkin' VNR's. Newbies may need help learning how to avoid them.

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