Journalism department blasts government ‘news’ videos
By David J. Craig
They resemble real television news investigations of such issues as Medicare reform, the war in Iraq, and airport security. In fact, they’re propaganda films produced by U.S. government agencies and narrated by public relations professionals sounding like journalists. And yet major news networks distribute the films to affiliates who, knowing the segments are fake, slip them into budget-strapped local news programs as filler, often implying that the pieces are the work of their own news staff.
A New York Times investigation revealed last month that the use of improperly identified government films in local television news has become widespread during the Bush administration. In part as a response to that investigation, the entire faculty of the College of Communication journalism department has issued a resolution calling the practice a breach of public trust by both the government and the news stations.
The resolution, which department chairman Robert Zelnick sent to other journalism programs on March 22, condemns the use of “phoney reporters hired by the government to perform in [video news releases] where their affiliation with government is unstated,” and “the deliberate use by television news outlets of material knowingly obtained from the [Bush] administration without clear identification of its origin.” It urges “all members of the media to cease this deceptive practice at once.”
Zelnick’s letter accompanying the resolution states: “During the civil rights era, and again during the Vietnam War, we found that simple appeals to decency and respect for the rule of law presented by academicians often carried great moral and political impact. We believe the same may be true with respect to this situation, which strikes at the core of journalistic integrity. Accordingly, we invite your distinguished faculty to join us in protesting the subversion of journalistic values, both by the government and those media collaborators who seek competitive advantage at the expense of fundamental public integrity.”
Thus far, the journalism departments of Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Reno, have formally endorsed the resolution.
Tug of war
The production of ready-to-use news videos by the government is not a new phenomenon, but the Bush administration has mastered the art form, says Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent, creating films that are “more sophisticated than ever, and made to fit seamlessly into a news broadcast.” The government’s effort is part of a decades-old battle, he says, between the federal government and the news media for control of U.S. public opinion.
“Richard Nixon and [Vice President Spiro] Agnew isolated the most powerful media institutions, like the New York Times and CBS News, by discrediting them as part of a liberal establishment set on undermining Nixon’s policies,” he says. “Over the years, the government and politicians have become more sophisticated at attacking the press and at working around the powerful journalism institutions — presidential campaigns now amount to a tour of airports, for instance, because candidates often go directly to local media rather than working with the traveling journalists. . . . The use of video news releases is part of this broader effort to speak directly to target populations without going through the filter of journalism.”
That television news programs present the videos as their own work, Zelnick says, is evidence in part of the economic pressures on local stations. “The great danger in this practice, as I see it, is not that people will lose confidence in local news operations, because that’s a development that is well under way,” he says. “But when stations are compromising themselves, that gives less ammunition to those of us committed to protecting journalism, whether we’re arguing on behalf of a reporter who will not disclose his sources or taking on a candidate who refuses to speak to the media. If journalists are busy corrupting themselves, that makes it harder to fight the good fight” on behalf of the profession.
Lou Ureneck, a COM journalism professor who helped spearhead the drafting of the resolution, says that government video news releases can be useful when put into proper context in television news broadcasts. “If a news program is running a story about an Abrams tank, for example, and it doesn’t have an image of the tank, a government video about the tank can be used ethically,” he says. “But then you usually see the footage for only a few seconds, and during that time you should see text on the screen that says, ‘Courtesy of the U.S. Defense Department.’”
That’s quite different from broadcasting a government video in its entirety, especially without disclosing its origin. “It’s clear to me that by producing videos that are designed to tempt lazy TV stations to use them as news reports,” Ureneck says, “the government is engaging in unethical practices.”