News or commercial?

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KAI RYSSDAL: We would like to assume that everybody gets their news from public radio. But we know some people catch the local television news too. You'd better watch closely, though. Because sometimes what's on the news, isn't. Companies and their public relations firms put out slick ads that look and sound like TV news items. Stations can air them, as long as they tell viewers they're commercials. But government investigators aren't so sure that's happening. Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.


SCOTT TONG: It's called a video news release — a VNR — the genetic twin of a real news story. You've got your victim. . . .
VNR SOUND: Jeff Van Nostrand has been living with moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis in his knees for years . . .

You've for your expert soundbite . . .

VNR SOUND: With glucosamine and chondroitin we can now maybe shift and try this with our patients . . .

And you've got your authoritative reporter signing off.

VNR SOUND: I'm Danielle Adair.

This pretend story was brought to you by Leiner Health products, maker of, you guessed it, glucosamine.

The Federal Communications Commission wants to make sure stations that air these commercials identify them as commercials. The FCC is looking into 77 stations.

Diane Farsetta of the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy says the Feds are asking a key question:

DIANE FARSETTA: What was the monetary relationship? Was there actually payment to play these video news releases?

She says PR firms increasingly pay stations in return for guaranteed airing. That way, fake-news buyers can target certain viewers at certain times.

FARSETTA: If you want a mostly older female audience or a more mixed gender audience you can target when your VNR is going to air, but only if you pay for it.

The folks who make video news releases deny they're tricking you. They say someone else decides whether to air them. The argument is a version of "Guns don't kill. People do."

As far as the companies who buy pretend news, here's Jack O'Dwyer of the industry newsletter O'Dwyer PR:

JACK O'DWYER: You know what their feeling is? We don't need to talk to the press. We don't' want the press. If we want to reach our people, we'll advertise, we'll do PR, we'll do the VNRs, we don't need the press.

If the FCC finds stations negligent, the maximum fine is $32,000.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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