I’ve been reading various articles and reports (here’s one of many) discussing TV stations and their use of what some are calling “fake news,” or VNRs (video news releases). The sticking point revolves around proper disclosure of this video material. The FCC is also closely investigating VNR use by stations, prompting questions about how (and if) VNRs should be used by stations.
First, let’s take a look at what comprises a VNR, or pre-packaged material supplied by a source other than a news station. As a former TV anchor/reporter and producer, I remember getting VHS copies of pre-packaged segments about various topics (environmental clean-up efforts, medical research) and the formats would vary. Some tapes would contain pure b-roll, or generic shots of a crowded freeway with a couple of graphics about increased traffic. Others contained two or three sound bites sandwiched between b-roll, graphics and narration. The California stations I worked for usually used their own original footage for local stories (even if it was stock b-roll shot for a previous story), while national and international news segments and footage came from the network feeds.
The key to any good TV story, obviously, is balance and accuracy… and in regard to use of pre-packaged footage – transparency and disclosure. Let’s say I’m producing a report on a new allergy drug and I get a VNR from the company that developed the drug. I could combine an interview clip from a researcher who developed the drug along with generic footage of pill bottles from the VNR while shooting original, local interviews with an allergy sufferer and an allergist at the local university. I could explore not only the development of the new drug, but also alternative treatments, common types of allergies and side effects of all allergy meds. Meanwhile, I would source and identify those clips that came from the VNR with on-screen chyrons.
While some VNRs contain clips and footage for sourcing and editing, others are produced to look like regular news reports, complete with a person playing the role of “reporter.” However, I can’t imagine those VNRs ever making it on-air (unedited) at stations I worked for. We’ll keep an eye on this issue, as I’m sure various organizations, such as the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), will be discussing and sharing more and more guidelines for proper use (and sourcing) of pre-packaged material.