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Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

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Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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April 20, 2004

Flacks Cannot Say They're "Reporting" Anymore, says the Public Relations Society of America

A statement today by the Public Relations Society of America says that Video News Releases should no longer use sign offs like the one that got Karen Ryan into hot water, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan Reporting." The PRSA now agrees that the practice, though common, can be confusing or misleading.

Shame on me for practicing my profession and engaging in a standard, acceptable practice, namely, narrating a VNR. I did nothing wrong. Nothing.Karen Ryan, March 29.

Nothing, huh? In the aftermath of the Karen Ryan fiasco (background is here) the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has taken a clear stand against the practice that got her into trouble last month: pretending to be a reporter in a video news release.

“In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting” was the phrase she spoke in a Video News Release (VNR) prepared for the US Department of Health and Human Services. Now that sort of tactic has been officially condemned by the major professional group in PR. Here’s the key passage in the PRSA’s statement, released to PressThink today.

One of the issues raised about the DHHS VNR was the inclusion of a sign-off identification at the completion of the story that uses the words “reporting.” This has caused some confusion among people who question whether someone who is not actually a reporter should be identified in a manner that could suggest that he or she is a journalist. While this is often done when VNRs are produced, we agree that this can be considered confusing and/or misleading.

Here is what I know about how this statement came about. On April 2, public relations professional Ken Denney, after reading my original post about Ryan, sent a note to Catherine Bolton, president of the PRSA:

Ms. Bolton: Jay Rosen has criticized our profession in a recent entry about the Karen Ryan matter on his blog, PressThink. He points out that while journalist organizations have sent letters of protest to the Bush Administration for the misuse of VNR material, no PR industry group has done so, which, he says, is what members of a “real profession” would do. Has there been such a protest or other official action that Mr. Rosen should be aware of? Ken Denney, Atlanta.

This is what I had written on March 31:

If Karen Ryan belonged to a real profession, responsible members of that fraternity would denounce her fakery, and renounce the practice of sticking simulated reporters into video clips so as to maximize the illusion of independent journalism and serious fact-finding. A real profession would be criticizing the government for abusing the practice of public relations, instead of letting the press do it all.

The letter of protest Denney mentioned was this from Peter Bhattia, executive editor of the Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who wrote to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson: “Certainly, material distributed to television stations that doesn’t identify the government as the source and ends with a voice-over such as ‘In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting’ is outside the bounds of ethical behavior for HHS or any other government agency.” (Scott Bosley, executive director of the ASNE, told me today that the group never got a repy from Secretary Thompson.)

On April 2, Catherine Bolton told Denny that the Society had been discussing the Ryan matter, and she would forward his note to the Advocacy Committee. The next week, I contacted Bolton and other PRSA officers to find out if any action had been taken, but not until today did I hear back about it. (Cedric L. Bess, the PR person for PRSA. “In response to your recent inquiry, the following is PRSA’s statement on video new releases.”) Here’s the statement in full, after which I have some comments:

Statement of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) on Video News Releases (VNRs), April 20, 2004

Extensive discussion was focused in recent weeks on a Video News Release (VNR) produced by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) pertaining to the recently enacted Medicare drug bill. Content of the video release touched off partisan debate and discussion but also raised ethical questions about the use of VNRs. Because VNRs are a basic public relations tool used by corporations, organizations and other entities to provide news content to television stations and thus communicate with the public, PRSA believes that it is important for there to be a better understanding of the role and usage of VNRs.

Three principles are at work here:

  • A VNR is the television equivalent of a press release and, as such, should always be truthful and represent the highest in ethical standards.
  • Producers and distributors of VNRs and the organizations they represent should clearly and plainly identify themselves.
  • Television stations airing VNRs should identify sources of the material.

Background: The VNR is the video equivalent of a press release, a written document sent to the media. The VNR is designed specifically for TV stations and consists of many elements including a complete story with visuals and narration/voiceovers, a suggested written script, added video that can be used by the station and suggested ways the story can be localized. Public relations professionals have produced VNRs in this manner for more than 25 years, and media outlets have used them on a regular basis.

Issue in Question: One of the issues raised about the DHHS VNR was the inclusion of a sign-off identification at the completion of the story that uses the words “reporting.” This has caused some confusion among people who question whether someone who is not actually a reporter should be identified in a manner that could suggest that he or she is a journalist. While this is often done when VNRs are produced, we agree that this can be considered confusing and/or misleading.

PRSA Position:

  • 1. Organizations that produce VNRs should clearly identify the VNR as such and fully disclose who produced and paid for it at the time the VNR is provided to TV stations.
  • 2. PRSA recommends that organizations that prepare VNRs should not use the word “reporting” if the narrator is not a reporter.
  • 3. Use of VNRs or footage provided by sources other than the station or network should be identified as to source by the media outlet when it is aired.

PRSA supports use of VNRs as useful public relations tools. They will continue to be effective when adhering to the highest standards of practice as described above.

My comments: This is wise action from the PRSA, a responsible thing to do. As the statement noted, use of the term “reporting”—when there is no reporting, just a script being read—is a fairly common practice in Video News Releases. We will have to see if it actually ends. I doubt the PRSA would have taken action if the American Society of Newspaper Editors had not done so earlier. Which shows why it’s important to protest, even when your profession (newpaper editing) is not directly involved.

Also of potential significance is this sentence: “Use of VNRs or footage provided by sources other than the station or network should be identified as to source by the media outlet when it is aired.” That’s not a new principle, but it means that any footage from a VNR that appears on the news without the source being identified to viewers is a problem— officially, as it were. It’s not enough, according to the statement, that broadcasters be notified— which was the heart of Karen Ryan’s defense (“It’s clearly labeled, so broadcaster beware.”) The public has to know too.

The significance of these statements is not that they transform a dubious practice. I wouldn’t expect that from a simple declaration by PRSA. But the statement does tell us where professional flacks see the line of legitimacy being drawn today. The limits of the fake, let’s call it. What they are saying in today’s statement is that those limits have changed— a little.

The PRSA used to say nothing about “someone who is not actually a reporter” posing as such, vocally. (To me a bizarre practice.) Now it says the tactic is dubious, though common. The Society, like most groups of its kind, has no power to ban. But it does, in a way, stop the next Karen Ryan from confidently stating, “I did nothing wrong. Nothing.”

I e-mailed Ken Denney, a proud flack who sent the original quest for action, to ask what he thinks. “Although I am not a member of the PRSA, it does not surprise me,” he said. Denney wholly welcomed the statement, then spoke directly to journalists:

PR professionals and journalists are bound together, forever. We cannot do our jobs without you and you cannot do your job without us. I, think, however, that in the press of daily business there is a tendency by both professions to become lazy, in a sense. Slick, packaged VNRs did not appear overnight, they are an evolutionary phenomenon that arose from the primordial ooze of the 24/7 news cycle. PR people cannot be faulted for supplying TV stations with something designed to make their jobs easier; TV stations cannot be blamed for taking advantage of such a resource… I will agree that PR agencies shouldn’t so package a VNR that it is indistinguishable from news if you will agree that reporters, like the White House press corps, should get out of the briefing room more often.

Meanwhile, Alice Marshall, who writes the technoflak weblog, had an odd response after I e-mailed her: “I am very pleased that PRSA has responded so swiftly, she said. “A excellent example of getting ahead of a controversy and taking the wind out of your critics’ sails.”

Alice, grab a calendar. The New York Times wrote about Ryan March 15. That’s a national black eye for PR suffered 36 days ago. Campaign Desk lit into her that week and the next. The ASNE, a comparable organization, sent its letter of protest on March 18. Ryan published her manifesto for fakery (I did nothing wrong!) on March 29. On March 31, CNN made changes in the way it handles VNR’s. On April 2 PRSA was asked for a statement. On April 20, they release it and they’re ahead of their critics?

I wrote about Karen Ryan because the normalization of fakery bothers and mystifies me. Not why it happens, we all know why. We’re quite savvy about that. But we don’t think very much about rolling back this trend— in, say, newsrooms and those who pressure newsrooms. Ken Denney is right in calling the VNR’s fraudulent features an “evolutionary phenomenon,” a slow drift toward the fake by broadcast journalists and flacks. (Yes, both are responsible.) Now someone had this creep arrested.

But does it mean anything in the long run? That’s why the gods of truth added a comments feature to weblogs. Is PRSA’s action meaningless symbolism? I don’t think so. But I bet some of you do.

Campaign Desk, weblog of the Columbia Journalism Review, did much of the original work on this story. See its coverage here and here, then here . (And here on the PRSA statement.)

Here’s an excellent background article on Video News Releases by Daniel Price at Abused by the News: “The VNR is such a stealthy invention that nobody seems to know who invented it. In the 1980s, when many local newscasts were being expanded from a half-hour to one hour, producers suddenly had twice the airtime to fill and half the resources to fill it. Meanwhile, our nation’s top marketing mavens were having an increasingly tough time pitching woo to an ad-saturated public. They needed a new venue, one with an established audience and built-in credibility.”

Techdirt comments on Karen Ryan (April 21): “What’s becoming clear is that, perhaps, no one is the traditional ‘objective’ journalist - but that anyone who takes on the role of a journalist should be prepared to have their stories looked at with much more scrutiny by a crowd of people who have their own voice as well.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 20, 2004 11:39 AM   Print


I am very pleased that PRSA has responded so swiftly. A excellent example of getting ahead of a controversy and taking the wind out of your critics' sails.

Contrary to what some may think, the public relations profession does have a code of ethics:

Posted by: Alice Marshall at April 20, 2004 1:37 PM | Permalink

Without defending what Karen Ryan did, I think people have come down a little too hard on her personally, because it's easy, at the expense of coming down harder on what creates demand for the techniques she used: the laziness and cheapness of broadcasters. (The phenomenon has its parallel in print, of course.)

I'm delighted that the PRSA has taken the course it did. But the new policy is not going to solve the underlying problem.

Posted by: Lex at April 20, 2004 2:44 PM | Permalink

So what if Karen Ryan simply said, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan"? And what if a three-second disclaimer ran along the bottom of the video saying something like "Some information for this report was provided by the Department of Health and Human Services."

Both would address the two major problems you outlined, but the big problem would then still exists. Most people wouldn't even catch the significance of the missing "reporting" and the video disclaimer would be missed by many.

The problem lies principally not with the PR profession, but with TV outlets hungry for material. They are often at a lost how to visualize some stories and indeed ignore some stories because they're hard to shoot. They cut staff and run what comes over the transom.

As a political blogger who often links the reader to stories, am I an editor? A writer? If I go to a town meeting and write about what happened, am I a reporter? If I have a biased view, am I a columnist? A pundit?

Yes, I do some PR work, some of it in the political arena, but I was a daily journalist and maintain my membership in the Society of Professional Journalists. Does that make me one?

Speaking of pundits, years ago during the Tonya Harding affair, Christine Brennan, then of The Washington Post, was covering the story. But in the middle of the ongoing story, she wrote a column excoriating Harding. It immediately made me wonder if her reporting had been fair, balanced, objective and even accurate.

I think the same thing when I hear TV and radio pundits today. Typical is the example of a recent Diane Rehm Show, when substitute host Steve Roberts asked each of the reporters the same question: What's your take on this story? Often the responses to such questions include pejorative or laudatory observations, making one think about the objectivity of the journalists' reporting.

The wall between editorial and reporting seems awfully low these days. And it's not PRSA's fault.

Posted by: Bob Griendling at April 20, 2004 3:41 PM | Permalink

So flacks can't say they're "reporting" anymore, or at least can't say it and then later say "I did nothing wrong" - because their organization specifically says it's unethical.

Alice Marshall: "...the public relations profession does have a code of ethics: "
Here's the section on honesty: "We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public"

See the triad: general-highminded-handwaving-claim, sordid reality, claim of innocence. Everybody gets a leg to stand on. The only way to clarify what the actors should do is for the code of ethics to delve into specifics.

Hooray for PRSA for addressing specifics (or at least one 'specific'). Do the corresponding newspaper associations do likewise? Is there a [written] consensus as to how the code of ethics applies in particular cases? Or does it remain safely above the fray, at the highminded-handwaving level? If the relevant decisions are always a judgement call, it's not much use.

Examples of specifics:
1.Bylines for stories, and whether unattributed ghostwriting by stringers is permitted.
2. Op-Ed astroturfing - (via Romenesko site)
3. "Balance" in pretrial reporting of a criminal case, when the DA has asked the victim's side to stay quiet. Is it ethical for the paper to present only the alleged perp's side of the story in their coverage (including disparaging inferences about the victim)?
4. House editorials that are faith-based (or bad-faith-based), not fact-based
5. Slanted titles for articles that don't accurately reflect the content - given that it's likely to influence readers as much as a factual error in the article itself, should these be subject to the same process of correction?

Perhaps these are addressed somewhere that I haven't found or don't remember - if so, a URL would be much appreciated

p.s. I am but a reader, not a journalist.

Posted by: Anna at April 20, 2004 4:33 PM | Permalink

"Blogger for hire."

Should I hang that shingle out? I can appear on your VNR and say the word "reporting" and we're good to go, because I'm listed in media map and I cover all kinds of topics, and will narrate your VNR professionally at rates that are highly competitive. (shhh--i also do PR.) Call today!

I'm with Bob. The problem is inherent in the discipline. There will be more ways to get around the PRSA criteria than you can stake a stick at. If we did this type of 'truth in spinning' exercise in print, magazines would be twice as thick due to citations on the PR firms and corporate comm writers who actually produce most of the stuff you read, at least on the business side.

And in America, it's all on the business side, even when it's the public sector. Maybe especially when.

The only lasting solution is to continue to disolve the power and credibility of big media and the broadcast model. That's what we're doing on blogs.

Posted by: jeneane at April 20, 2004 5:35 PM | Permalink

"While this is often done when VNRs are produced, we agree that this can be considered confusing and/or misleading."

How about this instead:

"PR professionals too often pose as journalists in VNRs, and we agree this is confusing and misleading."

Posted by: acline at April 20, 2004 7:29 PM | Permalink

Lex - "what creates demand for the techniques she used[is] the laziness and cheapness of broadcasters. ...the new policy is not going to solve the underlying problem."

"Demand"? no, else the _broadcasters_ would be paying her. More like "opportunity".

Bob - "The problem lies principally not with the PR profession, but with TV outlets hungry for material."

we can point the finger at many targets. The important question is, how can effort best be leveraged toward _solving_ the problem? I don't think that telling broadcasters "Quit being so cheap / lazy / hungry" is going to have much effect - that's how they make a profit. Given that we're seeing capitalism in action, how can we most effectively channel? guide? shame? elements of the system into greater social responsibility?

Jeneane - "The only lasting solution is to continue to dissolve the power and credibility of big media and the broadcast model."

How about "Part of the lasting solution is to use our pulpit to pressure big media into living up to its claims of credibility"? "Big media" has the resources to tread where bloggers can't, and the breadth of readership to reach people who aren't already true believers (of whatever ilk). These are strengths that weblogs don't have.

"Anytime you have a monopoly the risk is to assume that you are perhaps all-knowing, to not question yourself"*. Big Media is losing its monopoly, which is good. To wish for its extinction is, I think, short-sighted.

* out of context quote from Portland Phoenix

Posted by: Anna at April 20, 2004 8:38 PM | Permalink

Another strength of Big Media - it pays at least lip service to ideals (e.g. accuracy and fairness) that many bloggers don't aspire to.

Posted by: Anna at April 20, 2004 8:48 PM | Permalink

2. PRSA recommends that organizations that prepare VNRs should not use the word “reporting” if the narrator is not a reporter.

Notice how especially watered down this recommendation is. The relevant issue is not whether the narrator is a reporter, but whether the narrator is doing reporting in the VNR. But since it is a VNR narration, it isn't reporting. Hence there is never a circumstance in which 'reporting' is a legitimate description of a narration. Suggesting it is possibly legitimate is just more empy PR damage control, even at the rhetorical level.

Posted by: Douglas Kutach at April 20, 2004 9:44 PM | Permalink

Jay - I'm glad to see that something has been done about this. I work in PR as part of my day job (though in-house), and definitely agree that this practice smacks of "fakery," as you so aptly put it. It's not to say that Karen Ryan herself is the problem - it's that HHS or whoever else puts these VNRs together actually thinks that people think it's news. The best statement is that it is in deed a "video press release". When I put a press release out to some journalists, they are free to digest and write about it as they see fit, and will generally call and ask some clarifying questions if they have concerns. In this case, the news stations all had it done for them already.

While I suppose Ms. Ryan was "reporting" the facts that HHS had handed her, it's not "reporting" like when I see ABC's NJ Burkett standing on top of the sea wall in Sea Bright, New Jersey "reporting" on the flooding, for instance.

Kudos to PressThink and everyone else that chimed in and added some effort to make a change to something that was just moving along status quo for years and years now.

Posted by: Tom at April 20, 2004 11:37 PM | Permalink

While it's commendable that the PRSA drew an ethical line in the sand, their three-point manifesto won't do much to change the way VNRs are produced or aired.

Going point by point:

*1. Organizations that produce VNRs should clearly identify the VNR as such

That's nice, but it doesn't change the fact that the vast majority of VNRs used by newsrooms are used with the full knowledge and consent of the station producer. In fact, many are pitched directly by the publicists themselves. Everyone in the game knows that the "accidential VNR" is a rare mistake at best and a cheap excuse at worst.

* 2. Organizations that prepare VNRs should not use the word “reporting” if the narrator is not a reporter.

Also wise, except that virtually all VNRs come with multiple audio tracks, so stations can redub the segment with the voice of their own reporter. This is even more common than the Karen Ryan-style VNRs, and more deceptive. But what's being done about this?

* 3. Use of VNRs or footage provided by sources other than the station or network should be identified as to source by the media outlet when it is aired.

Yes, that would fix the problem. However, the people on both sides of the process have a very strong interest in keeping the VNRs on the down low. For the publicists, disclosure would mean a loss of effectiveness. For the journalists, it would mean a loss of audience. After all, who's going to stick with a newscast that runs ads between the ads?

Bottom line: it's a nice start, but I don't think we'll see real change in the VNR process until the pressure comes from the viewing audience. A few more public blow-ups like the Medicare VNR, and we just might get somewhere.

In the meantime, for more background information on VNRs, check out my article. I'm a novelist who did two years of research into the PR industry. I know this stuff well.

Posted by: Daniel Price at April 21, 2004 12:52 AM | Permalink

The only lasting solution is to continue to disolve the power and credibility of big media and the broadcast model. That's what we're doing on blogs.

It is naive to think bloggers have the power to disolve the credibility of big media. Only big media has that power. And sadly, it seems to be using that power to discredit itself, by continuing to employ creatures like Robert Novak.

Everyone has a vested interest in a healthy news media, and we can only hope that those in charge will turn it around.

Posted by: Alice Marshall at April 21, 2004 12:53 PM | Permalink

Re Point #1: "Organizations that produce VNRs should clearly identify the VNR as such and fully disclose who produced and paid for it at the time the VNR is provided to TV stations."

This would seem to leave a loophole for companies that serve as feeders of VNRs produced by others-- for example, CNN NewsSource, before it announced that it would handle VNRs separately from real news material.

It seems quite likely that there's a feeder company out there that'll be willing to take clearly identified VNRs and strip out that information before passing them on to stations. And, in the fog of a 24-hour news cycle, local stations may be hard put to notice that they're still getting un-ID'd stuff.

Posted by: Patience at April 23, 2004 11:28 AM | Permalink

That's a scary thought, Patience, because it sounds so likely to happen. On the other hand, this standard:

Use of VNRs or footage provided by sources other than the station or network should be identified as to source by the media outlet when it is aired.

could be read as obligating public relations people to make sure the television station actually ID's the "external" footage. The PRSA is saying it's a problem when a VNR is aired but not identified. In itself that catches no crooks, but it does bear on the loophole question.

Others with more knowledge in the field would know for sure, but doesn't the agency that produced a VNR also track where it appeared in the news, so as to show clients where their money went? Are there not commercial services that provide this tracking? If so, that's a way to hold VNR producers accountable. But only if we read the standard the right way.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at April 23, 2004 11:52 PM | Permalink

VNR usage is typically measured by Nielsen SIGMA or a similar service. It's actually quite an impressive process. The production company encodes the VNR with a digital tag and SIGMA tracks it all over the airwaves. They even calculate the relative ad value of all that free airtime.

So yes, there are foolproof ways of detecting VNRs. But for us schmoes outside the system, the SIGMA reports are hard to come by.

Posted by: Daniel Price at April 25, 2004 12:03 PM | Permalink

Alice, a bottom-up challenge is precisely the remedy to the power and range of big media and the broadcast model. Jay's post about Karen Ryan and its reverb serves as a good example. Have the net and weblogging usurped the power of Big Media yet? No. But we're getting closer, all things considered. And I still say it's the best shot we've got.

Posted by: jeneane at April 26, 2004 12:21 PM | Permalink

Coming to this discussion somewhat late, and at the risk of provoking flames from a crowd of journalists, I'd suggest that VNRs are merely commercial speech by commercial actors proposing commercial transactions. Further, when wrapped in the mantle of 'reporting', they are inherently false and deceptive.

The Federal Trade Commission has a duty to regulate false and deceptive advertising. I am afraid that I am suggesting that the FTC ought to regulate television's so-called 'news rooms'.

Of course, I continue to support the right of independent news reporters, editorialists, and publishers to be free from prior restraints on the press. And regulations aimed at any remaining shred of the industry left with even a tattered claim to decency should still be subject to a heightened standard of strict scrutiny.

Posted by: Ned Ulbricht at April 27, 2004 6:12 PM | Permalink

From the Intro