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The campaign resulted in 40,000 “letters” to the FCC that prompted the FCC to issue a Reminder and Public Notice Seeking Comment (FCC 05-84) in April 2005 on the issue to disclose all entities involving VNRs. The FCC public notice began by stating that the Commission has recently received a large number of requests that it consider whether use of VNRs by broadcast licensees, cable operators, and other complies with the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules. It went on to say “the rules are grounded in the principle that listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them…” (http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-05-84A1.pdf). The public notice reiterated the rules concerning sponsorship and political matter, but did not in any way interpret the rules differently nor add anything new (Calvert, 2008). In reaction to the FCC notice, a new organization, the National Association of Broadcast Communicators (NABC) was formed specifically to respond to the FCC on behalf of producers of VNRs.
On April 6, 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy released a study, Fake TV News, Widespread and Undisclosed, by Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price that identified television stations across the country that had aired VNRs without disclosure. In November 2006 a second 905 report, Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs, was released.
Together the reports identified 111 television stations that had aired 140 news segments from video news releases without disclosure to viewers. The reports alleged that the stations had violated FCC Rules that states 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). The CMD’s interpretation of the rules was that all VNRs must be identified all of the time, even though that is not stated in the FCC rules.
At the same time the first report was issued in April 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press filed concurrent but separate complaints with the FCC.
Subsequently, the FCC Enforcement Bureau launched an investigation and issued 42 Letters of Inquiry to the 77 broadcasters named in the first CMD report. In a Nov. 14, 2006 press release, Jonathan S. Adelstein, FCC chairman at the time, commended the CMD report and the Center for Media and Democracy by name, and said, “newsrooms are not allowed under the law to run commercials disguised as news without an honest and adequate disclosure (FCC Web site, hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs), which according to the FCC rules, simply was not true.
The CMD study prompted other interest groups to respond and become involved in the debate. The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) issued a critique of the Fake TV News, through its lawyers, Wiley Rein & Fielding as well as responded through several press releases. The RTNDA response noted that the undisclosed corporate VNRs cited in the CDM report were not prohibited by FCC sponsorship rules. RTNDA called Fake TV News “a biased and inaccurate study” and noted that while the CMD report stated that “the only interests served are those of the broadcast PR firms clients” (Farsetta & Price p. 11), one of the VNRS called into question by the CMD was actually a case where “the station simply used of some of the footage as background for a short report criticizing the product the VNR as designed to promote” (italics in the original). It noted that a reasonable reading of the FCC’s rules suggests that the sponsorship identification rules do not apply if stations or their employees have not received consideration (defined in the FCC rules as payment) for including VNR material in a broadcast, unless the material concerned politics or a controversial issue of public importance.
RTNDA contended that an FCC investigation was an unprecedented intrusion into newsrooms that would have chilling effect on the dissemination of newsworthy information to the public (RTNDA, 2006). Additionally, NABC and PRSA responded to the report, noting that forced disclosure outside of FCC regulation was a violation of the First Amendment and constituted “unprecedented intrusion of the government into the newsroom.” Like RTNDA, they advocated self-regulation as articulated in all of their organizations’ codes of ethics (NABC, 2006).
Despite rebuttals, the FCC investigation continued. In Oct. 2007, the FCC censured Comcast for showing segments from a VNR without disclosure on an affiliate station because the segment contained “too much focus on a product or brand name in the programming,” which is allowable as long as no payment was received for naming the brand. Comcast was fined, even though the FCC acknowledged there was no sponsorship involved (nor was there a political or controversial issue – the VNR was about a sleep aid). After further FCC investigations, Comcast was levied a total of $20,000 in fines. Comcast contested the fines, noting that no sponsorship identification was required since there was no consideration (payment) promised or received (Eggerton, 2007; Calvert, 2008). RTNDA weighed in, noting this was not how FCC rules had been applied previously (Eggerton, 2007). On Oct. 11, 2007, the CMD filed another formal complaint urging the FCC to expedite action on its investigation of the 110 other stations.
906 On Oct. 31, 2007, RTNDA responded again in a complaint to the FCC, noting that the identification of all material used from a video news release “already has begun to drastically chill speech in newsrooms across the country, inhibiting broadcasters and cablecasters from fully serving their viewers." They reiterated that VNRs that come into newsrooms via digital, satellite or other video feeds are not, by definition, sponsored.
The actions of RTNDA, an organization that could also be considered an activist group, resulted in counter-pressure on the FCC that has stalled any policy changes as of early 2010.
Meanwhile, the Center for Media and Democracy has moved its efforts from the issue of sponsorship (FCC 73.1212 section a) to section (d) 96 of the FCC rules that addresses political and controversial issues, and also to the issue of payola that includes “embedded advertising” in product placement, both of which may have more legal traction. Even though, according to its Web site, the CMD continues to monitor the misuse of corporate VNRs, rather than continuing to pursue its original arguments, it had changed the focus of complaints to a different section of the FCC rules. Stay tuned.
Discussion The study found that special interest groups working as activists for an issue and cause had a large role in the ethical debate about video news releases, at least for a period of time.
The three central communication strategies employed by the Center for Media and Democracy were the letter-writing campaign to the FCC, the release of the research report, Fake TV News, about alleged violations of FCC rules by television stations, and the filing of formal complaints with the FCC. Media strategies, including publicity through press releases and online newsrooms, were secondary. While press releases were issued at each juncture and had an agenda-setting effect in the trade media in particular, the central communication strategies used a more direct approach that served a problem recognition function. The release of the CMD study, which resulted in a media flurry, followed by the formal complaint to the FCC served as the triggering events that resulted in an investigation into the use of VNRs, even though it did not result in policy change.
The failure of the CMD is affecting policy change was not due to its strategies, but rather due to the fact that it did not seem to fully understand the FCC rules about sponsorship and how they had been applied in the past. It used emotional arguments that centered on viewers being mislead, duped, and harmed while the federal agency with the power to protect them did not intervene, which may have resulted in loss of credibility. In an interesting turn of events, a second special interest group, the Radio-Television News Directors Association had the greatest effect on the FCC policy decision. RTNDA’s rebuttals had more legal teeth than did the arguments of CMD.
The effects of the communication strategies used by the activist organization in this study are congruent with the experimental finding of Werder and Schuch (2008) that help explain the communication effects of message strategies, particularly as they influence problem recognition and the issue of goal compatibility. In terms of persuasive messages, the rational strategies of 73.1212 (d) states “In the case of any political broadcast matter or any broadcast 96
the RTNDA trumped the emotional strategies of CMD, but the initial coercive message strategies of the CMD were effective.
Advancing Theoretical Understanding of Activism Research about activist organizations in the public relations literature has moved from viewing them as a problem to viewing them as an opportunity, both of which are hegemonic, organization-centric approaches, and finally to viewing them as organizations in their own right.
While activist-centric approaches are helpful and have confirmed that activist organizations use public relations tactics, they do not fully explain how activist approaches to communication are theoretically different from approaches used by all organizations. Two approaches for future research would help expand theory. The first is to continue research about activist strategies, rather than focusing on tactical issues such as communication channels. The second is to recognize the situational nature of activist organizations, both as publics and as organizations.
Jiang and Ni (2007) note the dualist nature of the study of activist organizations; they can be public or can have their own publics, depending on the point of view. Furthermore, most organizations could assume activist roles for their special interests even when activism is not the central mission of the organization. Both the Center for Media and Democracy and the RadioTelevision News Directors Association are activist organizations when viewed from the perspective of the public relations industry or the FCC in terms of VNR policy. However, both organizations have other missions and do not always operate in activist roles. Furthermore, corporations often take on an activist role when they have a special interest, often through lobbyists. Communication strategies of activism, rather than of activists, should be the unit of analysis.
Resolving the Ethical Debate: All That Is Legal Is Not Ethical Since the purpose of the study was two-fold, a final look at the ethical debate about video news releases is in order. The basic argument in the debate comes down to whether identification of VNR material should be regulated by the government or self-regulated by journalists. At issue is the First Amendment and government intrusion in independent reporting, one of the points of the RTNDA rebuttal to the CMD study. Calvert (2008) contends the FCC is attempting to define news when it punishes journalists from using VNRs as source materials. While, current FCC rules do not require labeling for most VNRs, the Public Relations Service Council, The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the National Association of Broadcast Communicators, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) advocate clear identification of the source of VNRs.
VNRs from traditional distributors like Medialink Worldwide, Inc. are clearly labeled as such on the satellite feed, and the source (organization that produced the VNR) is identified.
Like print news releases, they contain verifiable information and contact information is provided in the satellite feed. Television news directors are not duped; they know the source of the feed and the origination point of the VNR. Since disclosure of source material that does not constitute sponsorship is voluntary, it comes down to the decisions of stations mangers and television news directors. Part of the problem is there is no agreed-upon criterion for what constitutes VNR use. Many news directors believe labeling is not necessary when only a small, edited portion of a VNR is used in a story. However, journalists are violating their own code of ethics by not disclosing the source. Voluntary disclosure on the part of television news directors and journalists could end the debate.
Post Script 908 It is ironic that the name Center for Media and Democracy implies non-interference of the government with the gate-keeping decisions of the media. An objective of CMD was to instigate governmental regulation to require journalists to identify the source of third party materials. If the Center for Media and Democracy had succeeded in its call for identification of all source materials used in news stories, the result would been a step toward FCC intrusion and censorship that could have a chilling effect on journalists’ independence to use material from outside sources that might be of interest to their viewers. It would have allowed the government to interfere with the gate-keeping decisions of journalists, which is not in the best interest of media and democracy.
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