Be honest about where your stories come from

November 20, 2013 01:30

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director

Broadcast and electronic PR firms have been around for a long time. They make a living providing video, audio and graphics about their client’s stories available to the media. Their ultimate hope is that understaffed and overworked newsrooms, which are producing more and more news product these days, will see some of their material, consider it newsworthy and use it on air or online.

You know the industry terms: Video News Releases, Satellite Media Tours, and the like. Over the years, many stations have used them—some more than others. In fact, did you realize that Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon and the pictures from Mars were VNRs, at least in the strictest definition of the term. That’s because they came from an outside video provider—that government agency known as NASA. 

The point is, sometimes, you can’t avoid using externally-generated content because the video is too important and you can’t get it any other way.  But most of the time—the content is optional and news directors, producers and managers should carefully weigh the pros and cons of using material which originated from a company or organization that likely has an agenda for wanting to get it on your air or your digital platforms.

And nowadays, the issues of origination and motivation are even cloudier with all the user-generated content that’s available. It’s not always just corporations and consumer product-makers that want your airtime. So you really need to ask the same kinds of questions about any video or audio you didn’t produce yourselves.

I was reminded about all this after a colleague forwarded to me an email sent by well-known broadcast PR firm touting the “ease” of covering a story without ever being there!  Here’s part of that email.  Note: I’ve removed the names of the companies involved:

What if you could report a story without ever having to be there?  What if the scope of your news coverage was no longer limited by your budget but only by your internet connection?
_____, Inc. and _____ are launching a new distribution service that makes this possible -- news reporting without having to report yourself!  Just by visiting our website, you'll be able to download b-roll, interviews, and event footage for everything from packages to VO/SOT's without having to bother with crews and reporter schedules.  The website launches tonight with our coverage of today's Brady Campaign lobbying event at the Capitol building (press release below).

For more information about the event, our footage, and accessing coverage of this event, please feel free to reach out to me at the information in my signature.  Thanks for being a part of our new distribution service and hope to hear from you soon!

I will give the firm credit for one thing:  It was certainly honest about its intentions!  And newsroom managers need to have the same level of honesty with their audiences, when and if they choose to use material like this.

The RTDNA Code of Ethics is very clear:  Under the TRUTH section, the Code says “The facts should get in the way of a good story. Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.”

The best and cleanest solution is to avoid using “handout” material in any form. But if you determine the story is significant enough and you can’t get it yourself, so you use video provided by someone else—label it clearly! Doing so allows your audience to determine the value and, perhaps, better understand the context of what they’re seeing and hearing. It’s just being honest!

Ethics aside, over-the-air broadcasters need also be aware of the sometimes-murky world of “sponsored content identification.” Get on the wrong side of these FCC regulations and you could find yourself and your station liable for significant fines. It’s happened before and, no doubt, will again. I see more station groups adopting blanket policies for all their stations prohibiting use of any VNR or SMT-type material.  Better safe than sorry.

The media comes under fire all the time, for all sorts of things.  Some of the criticism is valid—much of it is not.  Don’t let a lack of truth and transparency be one of the criticisms about your newsroom that is justified.

Updated June 2015