Today, press reports stated that the FCC has sent letters of inquiry to 77 television stations inquiring about their use of Video News Releases (VNRs) without properly notifying their audience about the source of such releases. VNRs are essentially pre-produced segments provided to television stations for inclusion in their programming. The Washington Post carried a story, here, describing some of the stories which triggered the FCC investigation. These reportedly included a report from an electronics show used by several TV stations in their news reports. The producer of the report had been paid by the electronics manufacturers featured in the story for including their products in the story.
The FCC released a Public Notice in April, 2005 detailing its policies on VNRs. The Public Notice makes clear that a station must disclose who paid for material broadcast on a station, whether or not the station received the consideration. Clearly, if an advertiser paid a station for airing a news report, the station would be required to disclose the payment. But the Public Notice makes clear that the station also owes its audience a disclosure even if it received no consideration, if the party that produced the material broadcast on the station received some consideration, and the station could discover that consideration by asking the producer if he or she was paid or through other means of reasonable investigation.
The recent FCC action reminds broadcasters to take their disclosure obligations seriously. The investigation could quite well go beyond these limited instances cited in the press release. Last year, the Washington Post ran a series of articles about television stations that seemed to tie feature stories in their news programs to advertising purchases by companies featured in those news pieces. Under the FCC’s definitions set out in its April 2005 Public Notice, these tie-ins could raise issues. To remain in compliance, stations need to make their news decisions based on their journalistic judgments, not based on financial considerations. And they need to inquire whether any outside source that provides program material has received any consideration that needs to be disclosed to the station’s listeners.