From the department of kicking the US mainstream media while it’s already down: it’s not unusual for US TV stations to run corporate product pitches as straight news items, according to a new report by a media watchdog.

Over a ten-month period, the Center for Media and Democracy found 77 TV stations guilty of airing video news releases (VNRs) created by PR companies for corporate clients.
Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed

What happens is that the news anchor stops talking about murder and mayhem on Main Street and cuts to a colleague who talks about a great new product by Acme Corp. The viewer has no reason to think that what’s on show is an advert.

The report finds that while videos were routinely altered to look as though they originated in-house, most stations failed to disclose their promotional nature.

Television newscasts—the most popular news source in the United States—frequently air VNRs without disclosure to viewers, without conducting their own reporting, and even without fact checking the claims made in the VNRs.

Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, Center for Media and Democracy

But Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, warns against government legislation against undisclosed TV promotions: “Where does it stop? It is up to the individual stations to look at their practices and tighten up.”
NY Times

The problem with this is that business self-regulation generally doesn’t work without sticks and carrots, whether from government or the wider community. The bottom line will win out.

Here, US TV viewers are being bamboozled; they don’t have enough information to make an informed choice. The government has to intervene or at least look as though it’s going to intervene in order to nudge media companies into behaving in the public interest.

Where government regulation stops is a matter for discussion. But media freedom, as Cochran seems to acknowledge, doesn’t include the right to run snake oil shows – not yet.

The placing of uncredited news stories by the US military in Iraqi newspapers led to a government inquiry. Surely US corporations and media doing the same at home should be held to a similar or even higher standard of accountability?