When is News Not News?

So when is news not news? When it’s invented for the sake of sales and marketing, that’s when.

My friend and co-advocate, Helen Haskell in South Carolina, forwarded a link to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review by Trudy Lieberman about what those in the marketing biz call VNRs — Video News Releases. Excellent article. If you have a chance, give it a good read.

Here’s the overview: Increasingly, across the country, when you see “health news” on your local TV news broadcast, what you are watching is possibly not news at all, but a nicely packaged advertisement for your local hospital. Trudy recounts a recent segment that touted a new home-physical-therapy program for kids which featured this “new” program at the Cleveland Clinic. It was run as a news segment, it was included in the news broadcast, and it was called news by the anchors who delivered all the other news…. BUT (yes, that’s a big BUT!) …. it was written, produced, and packaged by the Cleveland Clinic. Yes, really.

What’s wrong with this picture?

My answer might surprise you.

I actually have no problem with the Cleveland Clinic developing information in video, or audio, or print form for potential customers. As a matter of fact, my radio show is just that — a radio show that is underwritten by University Hospital for the benefit of listeners.

But I do have a problem (a BIG problem!) with calling it news! Because it isn’t. In this country, we expect our news to be an unbiased report of what is new and interesting that is currently going on in our world, how it may affect us, and perhaps why it is important. It may have a sponsor, or an advertiser, but that is called out as an advertisement and we know the very distinct line between what is considered the news, and what is considered an advertisement.

My radio show touts that very distinct line with every intro and outro of the show — a minimum of 8 times during each hour.

The problem with broadcast or print news departments accepting these VNRs and including them as part of their news is that the line becomes blurred. They may be talking about something helpful to patients — but they need to make sure we know where that line is! Otherwise — ALL their news becomes suspect.

Look at it this way: suppose a local manufacturing plant has a layoff of workers, and they supply the video used to tell the local community about their layoff. Don’t you think that message would be a bit swayed in favor of the company? Do you think they would include real interviews of the people who had been laid off? Do you think the local economic development folks would have their say? Of course not.

As patients — we need to know the “health news” we see is unbiased. We need to know the very objective viewpoint of this news. While it’s OK to introduce a new idea — we need to know that the news department has looked behind it to bring us the counter idea if one exists.

And in a VNR? No way is it such. And no way can it be trusted.

You can be sure that if I see a VNR on one of my local channels couched as “news” — I will no longer watch that channel because I know I can’t trust its news. (Hear that WSTM, WSYR, WTVH and WSYT? And yes, one of you does use VNRs and no, I don’t watch your channel.)

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2 thoughts on “When is News Not News?”

  1. Trisha:

    Thanks so, so much for alerting me (and all the other visitors to your blog) to Trudy Lieberman’s excellent “Columbia Journalism Review” article on the Video News Release (VNR) phenomenon. It is very informative.

    I have been interested in VNRs since I first learned that JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) used a VNR (or “fake news”) to publicize a very controversial study where most of the physician/authors of the study had some serious financial ties to Big Pharma. (Please see my three part account, “The JAMA Controversy,” at http://honestmedicine.typepad.com/medical_watch/2006/08/introducing_jam.html .)

    Your visitors might also like to know about a wonderful site, http://www.prwatch.org, which is – as its name suggests — a media watchdog. Their VNR expert, Diane Farsetta, does a yeoman’s job of keeping a watchful eye on the VNR phenomenon (or, rather the “VNR disgrace”!). Diane’s 114 page book, “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed,” can be found – in full – at http://www.prwatch.org/pdfs/NFNPDFExt6.pdf . It is a “must read.”

    And by the way, PRWatch has included other articles by Trudy Lieberman in their “Spin of the Day” section. You can see their “spin” on her “Columbia Journalism Review” article about media training at http://www.prwatch.org/node/2376, and I am proud to say that my JAMA story was also a “spin of the day.” (See http://www.prwatch.org/node/5177 .)

    Thanks for your excellent work, Trisha. And thanks, too, for making more people aware of the dangers of VNRs in the health field.

    Julia Schopick

  2. Helen Chickering

    I was disappointed to see that my comment in Trudy Lieberman’s recent article on the unhealthy relationships between hospitals and local TV news (CJR January/February) was taken out of context.
    Lieberman writes that, “At one end of the customer-service spectrum, NBC seems to use the Cleveland Clinic material as a kind of story-idea service. Helen Chickering, a medical reporter for NBC News Channel, which sends stories to NBC affiliates, says the network cannot use prepackaged Video News Releases, known as vnrs, in stories, but will make its own interview requests based on them. “The only way we can connect is with an interview request,” she says of the rules about dealing with vnr providers. ”
    Lieberman is correct in noting that the network does not use video news releases. My quote, however, was in reference to story pitches and press releases, which we do receive from the Cleveland Clinic and many other medical institutions, government agencies, etc. I am sure our medical news desk is not unique in that sense. We do not receive video news releases from the Cleveland Clinic.
    In addition, I never stated that we use video news releases (or even press releases) as a story idea service. My statement was that if we come across a press release that features an interesting angle or an expert who would be appropriate for a story we are pursuing, we will contact the institution and request an interview.
    The article made some very good points that should have a positive impact on the quality of television health news. However, I was disheartened by the misuse of my interview and with the many generalizations used in the article.
    In addition, I was concerned to see that Lieberman fronted a TV news panel on this topic at a recent conference of the Association of Healthcare Journalists – that included only people interviewed in her article – who spoke out against the issue – the editor of CJR – and only one TV producer. Seems a bit out of balance.
    Here’s the panel info:
    Keeping local TV health news accurate – and honest
    Does an ethical danger zone exist when fiercely competitive hospitals meet TV stations looking for cheap and easy stories? Hospitals have found they can go beyond providing experts and story lines to providing ready-to-use footage and completed scripts. Panelists will explore at what point such relationships become lazy journalism and cheat viewers of important coverage.

    Trudy Lieberman, director, Health and Medicine Reporting Program, City University of New York
    L.G. Blanchard, manager, UAB health system media relations – quoted in CJR
    Thomas McCormally, public information officer, Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, Kansas City – quoted in CJR
    Gerri Shaftel, medical producer, KTTV-Los Angeles
    Moderator: Mike Hoyt, executive editor, Columbia Journalism Review.

    Sincerely, Helen Chickering
    Medical Correspondent
    NBC News Channel

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Trisha Torrey
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