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News 4 sale

Local newscasts are passing off corporate press releases as news, according to a new report.

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In a segment about identity theft, a local affiliate here, KTLA, featured its technology reporter telling viewers about the dangers of certain e-mails that can take unsuspecting computer users to criminal websites where their personal information will be stolen. The story featured software designed to combat the e-mails, as well as interviews with representatives of the software firm. The reporter explained how the software worked, but left out another piece of what media observers call a crucial bit of information, namely, where the interviews, script, and video footage came from.

The answer is a tried and true PR tool known as a VNR, or video news release, an information "package" that may cost a company up to $25,000 to produce and send out to TV stations. This particular VNR, paid for by software firm Trend Micro, edited and revoiced by the reporter, was subsequently syndicated to more than 150 TV stations across the country.

VNRs and other things such as payments to news stations for product placement in a story are at the heart of a new round of inquiries into commercial influences on broadcast TV, this time focusing on local newscasters. While these tools are not new, what is new is the scope of their usage, say media watchers, as alleged in a study released earlier this month by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a watchdog. The group tracked 36 VNRs for 10 months and revealed a widespread pattern of usage without disclosure by local TV stations. Some 77 stations aired nearly 100 VNRs, a third of them in their entirety.

"I was stunned by the scope," says FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who says the allegations violate the heart of broadcasting law, established in 1927. While he acknowledges stations may use footage obtained from outside sources, he says it must be clearly identified as such. "The public has a right to know who is trying to persuade them." Adelstein says the FCC is launching an investigation into whether such usages constitute a violation of FCC technical requirements for disclosure. If so, the stations could face fines.

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