Courier Newsroom’s YouTube video on TV stations running an Amazon video news release.
For A&W’s 100th anniversary last summer, the burger chain disseminated a B-roll video of old commercials and footage of black and white signs, along with a suggested script for TV anchors.
“100 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK — ON JUNE 20, TO BE EXACT — AMERICA’S FIRST FRANCHISED RESTAURANT CHAIN WAS BORN,” the script reads.
In 2017, Southern California Edison, a power company, made available similar pre-edited segments for radio and TV, along with a suggested script about how the city of Ontario was working with the company to implement electric vehicle charging stations.
These packaged news items might look just like the nightly TV news to the untrained eye. But they’re a form of public relations, referred to as “video news releases,” and have been around for decades.
This week, the practice gained wide attention when the Courier Newsroom, which was founded by liberal political group Acronym, compiled footage of local TV news programs running a segment produced by Amazon touting its efforts to keep warehouse employees safe from the coronavirus. (One of the stations running the segment is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.) The testimonials included in the package differ greatly from the conditions described by some Amazon warehouse employees during the pandemic.
Critics slammed Amazon for disseminating the materials, and the broadcasters for running them. An Amazon spokesperson said this type of video news release is not new, and that it was transparent that the material was coming from the company. A company spokesperson said it welcomes reporters into its building and that the video was intended for reporters who aren’t able to tour its sites themselves.
“We included some short excerpts of a video provided by Amazon as part of our regular, ongoing reporting on Amazon workers’ conditions at distribution centers within our market,” a spokeswoman for WTVJ, an NBC owned-and-operated TV station in Miami, told CNBC in a statement. “We regret not attributing the source as clearly as we could have. Our station will continue to report on this important issue in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, including giving Amazon workers an opportunity to tell their side of the story.”
The other stations did not return requests for comment.
CNBC spoke with experts, researchers and leaders at journalism organizations about the history of video news releases, what they’ve been used for and their troubled history with the FCC.
It started in the 1950s with government reports
Larry Moskowitz, who once ran a public company called Medialink focused on video news releases, said sending video materials to TV stations first arose in the 1950s, when government entities would provide videos on subjects like new farming techniques.
Later, Hollywood studios sent movie trailers to TV stations, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission used them to send visual information about product recalls, like faulty strollers or potentially dangerous toys.
A 1997 Medialink prospectus mentions a Pepsi-sponsored broadcast campaign to counter rumors about syringes found in soft drink cans.
“Pepsi produced four VNRs (video news reports) which aired in one week and countered the rumors by showing the viewing public how difficult it would be to tamper with the canning process,” the document reads. “The Company’s electronic monitoring indicated a cumulative audience of 488 million over the one-week period, including airings on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and CNBC.”
Moskowitz said companies eventually began sending packages of material in attempts to help journalists better explain a product or who it was for. But they expected news organizations to use the material “responsibly” to make sure a story was balanced.
News stations don’t always hold up that end of the bargain, however.
George W. Bush’s administration used video news releases to tout initiatives in aviation security or the country’s invasion of Iraq, the New York Times reported in 2005. The reports appeared to be news, and many stations broadcast them with no indication that they came from the government.
The FCC later in 2005 released a public notice that said stations and cable outlets must disclose the “nature, source and sponsorship” of material and that the failure to do so could lead to fines, license revocation or even imprisonment. In 2011, for instance, the FCC said it would fine two licensees for not making proper disclosures.
The FCC didn’t return a request for comment on whether it had received complaints about news stations running Amazon’s video news release.
Blame the stations
Candace White, a professor in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, said the onus lies with news stations to disclose when they’re running prepackaged material.
“The news director knows 100% of the time… there is no doubt they know where it comes from,” she said. “If a news station decides to air it, they can edit it, they can refute it, they can run it in its entirety, they can run a piece of it, they can do B-roll and voice. If anybody’s duped, it’s the television station duping the viewers.”
She said that viewers can look for clues that they’re watching a pre-packaged report. Watch for experts that appear to be from outside the community, and ambient video that doesn’t include street signs, license plates or other identifiers.
But she said this particular release seemed normal to her.
“Amazon made it clear what this was,” she said. “You pick something newsworthy; you’re obviously trying to put your company in a positive light,” she said.
White acknowledged that the practice has become more common thanks to changes in the industry. The rise of 24-hour news stations, and increase in local news slots from minutes to hours, created more airtime for anxious programmers to fill. Satellite technology meant that companies and government agencies could quickly send packages over the air, instead of sending video recordings through the mail.
Dan Shelley, the executive director and chief operating officer of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said the temptation to run prepackaged material could be stronger in smaller media markets with fewer resources — particularly on a holiday weekend. He suspects that’s why some of the stations chose to air the news release.
But Shelley pointed to the organization’s code of ethics, which encourages stations to be completely transparent about the source of video or of any information they report. He said they should also independently verify the information that’s contained in the submitted video or audio.
“It is not uncommon for TV and radio stations to run these from time to time when it meets their editorial requirements and needs,” he said. Submitted video could come anywhere, including from local health departments or even the live feeds from NASA.
The Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics also encourages its professionals to be honest and accurate in communications.
Al Tomkins, a senior faculty for broadcast and online at the Poynter Institute who wrote on the topic earlier this week, told CNBC said it’s been years since he’d heard of newscasters using a full VNR where the narration was actually provided — a practice he said used to be far more common. He said he doesn’t blame Amazon for sending it out.
“It’s a mystery to me why it happened across the country, across ownerships. I still don’t understand why it happened,” he said.
He said with the public watching so much media, consumers are wanting to know that what they’re seeing is the real deal. He pointed to the old saying. “Don’t hand somebody the gun to shoot you with,” saying that’s what happened here.
“When we do things like this, the public assumes there was ill intent,” he said. “The public already believes that we’re for sale. This only gives them more reason to believe that.”
But Lisa Graves, a progressive activist and president of the board of the Center for Media and Democracy, said Amazon should stick to advertising. Her group runs PR Watch, which has long documented the practice and newsrooms’ publishing of video news releases.
“It’s understandable that Amazon wants to tout its efforts in this pandemic, but it should do that through its advertising budget as advertising, or through substantial donations to help the public given how lucrative the company is and how exponentially richer its head Jeff Bezos is today than a year ago,” she said.
“It’s also the case that the broadcasters have an obligation, a legal obligation and a moral obligation, to not air pre-packaged video news releases that promote corporate products without them disclosing them as they are,” she said.