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Recent controversy about VNRs, including charges made by the Center for Media and Democracy, has stemmed from an unclear understanding of FCC rules, particularly about regulations of political and controversial issues, and disagreement and misunderstanding about what constitutes sponsorship as stated in the FCC rules. Closer examination of governmentproduced VNRs was spurred by the “Karen Ryan offense,” which was the release of VNRs from the U.S. government during the Bush administration that appeared as news stories.
In 2003, television viewers across the country, in an estimated 22 million households, watched what appeared to be a news report, narrated by what appeared to be a reporter named Karen Ryan who explained changes to Medicare resulting from the Medicare Drug Improvement and Modernization Act. Ryan, in fact was not a journalist, but owned a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. that produced the VNR on behalf of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (Chepesiuk, 2006). Ryan was paid to produce about a dozen reports for seven federal agencies between 2003 and 2004 (Barstow & Stein, 2005). According to The New York Times, at least 20 federal agencies including the Defense Department, State Department, Census Bureau, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had distributed hundreds of pre-packaged news segments for the Bush administration. The segments appeared to be news coverage by reporters, and most were broadcast on local stations throughout the country without acknowledgement that they were produced by the U.S. government (Barstow & Stein, 2005). The segments were designed to fit seamlessly into local news broadcasts and the “reporters” did not state they were paid by the government.
Government-produced VNRs, if aired without disclosure, violate not only the FCC rules, but also the law against covert propaganda by the Government Accountability Office. The Karen Ryan offense and let to a ruling by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Bush administration had also broken propaganda regulations by producing pro-administration VNRs by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies that were staged to appear to be news segments (Aiello & Proffitt, 2007; Peabody, 2007). In three separate opinions, the GAO held that government-produced news segments may constitute improper “covert propaganda.” The GAO said government agencies could not produce the segments unless they clearly identified the source for the stations and viewing audiences. While the VNRs were labeled by the government as such for television stations, the stations, for the most part, did not pass this information on to viewers (Barstow & Stein, 2005).
Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934 (FCC, CFR 73.1212 d) requires identification for “political broadcast matter or discussion of a controversial issue of public importance for which any film, record, talent, script is furnished…” as well as for “advertising commercial products or service, when it is clear that the mention constitutes a sponsorship identification…” In April 2005, the FCC required television stations to label all governmentproduced VNRs during broadcasting; however, it was not clear on what constitutes “public 902 matter.” The rules require different forms of identification depending on the length of the broadcast (Aiello & Proffitt, 2007).
In April 2005 the Truth in Broadcasting Act, sponsored by senators John Kerry and Frank Lautenberg, was introduced in Congress. Its purpose was to insure that “pre-packaged news stories” contain announcements that inform viewers that the information within was provided by the United States Government. The act specified how and for what period of time viewers would be informed. The bill was amended in the U.S. Senate to the point that it did not require more than current FCC rules requires. It was not enacted during the 109th session of Congress and was not re-introduced in the 110th Congress (Peabody, 2007).
The issue of sponsorship has been at the center of the CMD arguments and formal complaints. The FCC rules about corporate VNR use, however, are very clear: stations are not obligated to identify the source of the video material when there are no sponsorship issues (payment for placement). The rules state that sponsorship identification is required “when a broadcast station transmits materials for which money, service or other valuable consideration is paid, promised or accepted…” (FCC, 47 CFR 73.1212 a). They go on to say, “for the purposes of this section, the term ‘sponsored’ shall be deemed to have the same meaning as ‘paid for’” (FCC, 47 CFR 73.1212 i). The vast majority of VNRs are not sponsored content as defined in the FCC rules. Like print news releases, VNRs are distributed free and without obligation for use.
Televisions stations pay nothing to use them, nor are they paid anything if they use them. Since no payment is exchanged for the use of VNRs produced by corporate and nonprofit clients, there is no legal requirement for labeling unless the topic of the VNR could be considered political or controversial, regardless of how “commercial” the resulting news segment may appear.
The Role of Activists in the VNR Debate Much of the recent debate about the ethics of video news releases and ensuing FCC activities and media coverage has been spurred by Center for Media and Democracy. However, rather than focusing its efforts on the issue of political broadcasts from government-produced VNRs that had garnered media attention (section d), it appealed to the FCC to investigate violations of sponsorship rules by private corporations (section a). CMD is a nonprofit special interest group that examines, according to its Web site, “how PR experts concoct and spin the news, organize front groups, manipulate public opinion and manage public policy for powerful special interests.” It purportedly strengthens participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism (www.prwatch.org).
The following section first looks at academic studies about the roles of activists in public relations, followed by an examination of the objectives and activities of the Center for Media and Democracy in order to explore activist strategies by examining how the CMD attempted to affect the practice of public relations through pressure to regulate video news releases.
Activism and Public Relations Activism is the process by which groups exert pressure to change policies, practices, or conditions that the activists find problematic (Smith, 2005). Activists can be a loose association of like-minded individuals or formal organizations whose mission is to address public issues (Dozier & Lauzen, 2000). Earlier studies in the public relations literature look at activists from the point of view of the organization being “acted” on and seek to discover how organizations “respond” to activism. In this sense, activists are viewed as a public external to the organization of interest and are often seen as problematic to the organization (Grunig, 1992). The dominant 903 paradigm expressed in excellence theory puts the corporation at the center of the examination and the activist group at the margin, while more recent critical studies recognize activist organizations as both a public as well as organizations that have their own publics and are practitioners of public relations. Dozier and Lauzen (2000) note the corporate-centric view can lead to intellectual myopia in the study of public relations.
The recent studies that look at activists as the unit of analysis have done so from the perspectives of resource mobilization (McCruskey, 2009; Sommerfeldt, 2009); framing (Zoch, Collins, Sisco, & Supa, 2008; Reber & Berger, 2005), and the use of media relations and online news rooms (discussed below), but have found no real differences in activists’ use of public relations tactics compared to public relations practices of “traditional” organizations.
Activist organizations, like many other types of organizations, practice public relations to influence public opinion and to implement efforts to achieve their goals, and often execute media strategies that prompt journalists and have an agenda-setting effect (McCluskey, 2009; Reber & Kim, 2006). News coverage is a political asset for activist groups. McClusky (2009) found that environmental groups can have a media agenda-building effect, and not surprisingly, groups with resources to provide more information subsidies received more positive coverage. Publicity gives activist groups fuel to influence public opinion and potentially change public policy.
Therefore, activists often to make an “issue” out of the condition they find problematic by drawing attention to it through publicity.
The Internet and availability of Web sites has revolutionized activism (Taylor, Kent, & White, 2001; Reber & Kim, 2006). Many recent activist-centric studies examine media relations strategies, with focus on the online environment. Kent and Taylor (1998) examined conditions that constitute the creation of a dialogic loop between activist organizations and their key publics, which includes the media. They found a Web site must generate a dialogic loop that is useful and should generate return visits. It must be easy to navigate and should not lead users away from the sites. They later examined the dialogic nature of activists’ Web sites by examining how environmental groups used their sites to foster two-way communication (Taylor, Kent, & White, 2001). Reber and Berger (2005) looked at how an environmental activist group framed issues to influence news coverage. The above studies confirm that activist groups are themselves organizations that practice public relations, but the theoretical aspects of the findings are not activists-specific. The studies indicate that activist groups use media strategies in much the same way that all organizations use them, which does not expand theory about activists and activism.
Werder and Schuch (2008) used a communication-centric, rather than organizationcentric approach to look at the effects of message strategy used for activism purposes. In their experiment, communication strategies served a problem recognition function. Studies that that identify the effects of activist strategies warrant further study and lead to theory building.
Communication Strategies of the Center for Media and Democracy Effective activism includes influencing the agenda of policy makers and serving as an expert source of information. Smith (2005) notes that in the 1960s activist initiated reforms that were enacted into law or regulation by government agencies as the EPA. To examine the communication strategies used by the Center for Media and Democracy to attempt to change FCC policy, the study used a qualitative, historical research approach in order to understand the background and activities of the CMD and other organizations relevant to the central focus of the study. Denzin and Lincoln (1998) note the historical method is applicable to all fields of study when there is a need for historical knowledge. Because evidence should not be examined from a 904 singular point of view, primary and secondary resources were used. Primary documents included rules regarding sponsorship identification (FCC 73.1212) and Notices of Inquiry and Notices of Proposed Rule Making (FCC 05-84; 08-155) accessed from the FCC Web site, and the full text of the CDM study (Farsetta & Price, 2006). Additionally, press releases from the Web sites of the FCC, CMD, RTNDA, NABA, Free Press, and PRSA were examined. Finally, news articles from a Factiva search that appeared in Quill, Broadcasting & Cable, and The New York Times provided points of view for the study. It should be stressed that the study was not a content analysis that attempted to quantify any aspect of the issue, but rather used an historical methodology to gather as much relevant information about the problem as possible for the purpose of analysis.
The Center for Media and Democracy was founded in 1993 by John Stauber, author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. One of its objectives is “countering propaganda by investigating and reporting on behind-the-scenes public relations campaigns by corporations, industries, governments and other powerful institutions” (www.prwatch.org). CMD is highly critical of public relations as an industry and as a profession. For more than a decade, it has been critical of the distribution and use of video news releases; it considers all VNRs to be fake news designed to dupe television journalists and viewers, and believes that use of VNRs without source identification constitutes plagiarism (Stauber quoted in Chepesiuk, 2006). It advocates for full source disclosure, which includes onscreen labeling whenever material from VNRs is used.
In 2005, the Center for Media and Democracy launched “Stop Fake News,” a letterwriting campaign on its Web site. The campaign was conducted jointly with Free Press, “a national, nonpartisan organization that seeks to increase informed public participation in media policy and to promote a more competitive and democratic media system” (www.freepress.net).
The campaign urged people to, “Take action to stop fake news today - Demand that the Federal Communications Commission investigate, strengthen disclosure requirements and punish station owners that air fake news” (www.prwatch.org). Both organizations encouraged readers of their Web sites to complain that “corporate propaganda continues to infiltrate local TV newscasts with disguised product advertisements posing as genuine news reports…that represents a breach of the trust between broadcasters and their viewers,” and provided an easy-to-use dialog box where readers could edit or send the above statement verbatim to the FCC.