This really shouldn’t be news to media relations professionals, but unidentified client-funded video news releases that masquerade as independent reports on local news telecasts continue to haunt the public relations industry like a recurring nightmare.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, WI-based watchdog group, recently completed a 10-month investigation that documented the pervasiveness of undisclosed VNRs. The CMD report, “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed” found:

  • TV stations don't disclose VNRs to viewers. Of 87 VNR broadcasts that CMD documented, not once did the TV station disclose the client(s) behind the VNR to the news audience.

  • TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reporting. In every VNR broadcast that CMD documented, the TV station altered the VNR's appearance. Newsrooms added station-branded graphics and overlays to make VNRs indistinguishable from reports that genuinely originated from their station.

Some might consider this a clever form of deception or at least money well-spent. All in all, an effective media relations strategy, right?

No. However, if they’re properly identified by the newscasters and are held to journalistic standards of accuracy, then yes, VNRs are not only effective, but they’re a boon to both clients and news broadcasts. VNRs are not in and of themselves evil. Like any other tool, they can be used well by some and misused by others.

In responsible hands, VNRs can serve the same purpose as a news release sent to a print reporter – here’s the facts, feel free to use them. A more thoughtful choice for those concerned about the taint VNRs are acquiring might be the use of B-rolls, which allow stations to take footage provided by a client and wrap their own stories around it. While B-roll invites less condemnation than VNRs, when it comes to the use of the latter, it is ultimately the responsibility of the station to disclose the source of the material.