The 42 stations were among 77 accused in April by two consumer groups, the Center for Media Democracy and Free Press, of airing the news releases -- essentially PR content akin to an "advertorial" in a magazine -- without disclosing their origins, a violation of FCC rules.
"They pawned it off as their own reporting," said John Stauber, executive director of the Madison, Wis.-based Center for Media Democracy, who called the results of his group's 10-month look at TV stations' use of video news releases "extremely shocking."
Video news releases (VNRs) are reports created by companies or government agencies that mimic the look and feel of a newscast, often using a spokesperson who is presented as a reporter, but all information in the report is vetted by the group paying the bill.
ABC, CBS affiliates
The consumers groups filed a complaint with the FCC after discovering VNRs were used by major news stations such as KABC-TV in Los Angeles and WCBS-TV in New York, as well as smaller stations. Sinclair Broadcasting's KOKH-TV in Oklahoma City ran the most VNRs, six.
In a release today from the FCC, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, said he was pleased with the commission's action.
"We need a full and thorough investigation to learn all of the facts surrounding the undisclosed broadcast of what appears to be commercial material, and prosecute any violations to the full extent of the law," he said. "The public is misled by individuals who present themselves to be independent, unbiased experts or reporters, but are actually shills promoting a prepackaged corporate agenda. The public has a legal right to know who seeks to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about the credibility of the information presented. Shoddy practices make it difficult for viewers to tell the difference between news and propaganda."
Though both consumer groups filed complaints with the FCC, the Center for Media Democracy did the research that led to the charges and reported that the TV stations actively disguised sponsored content from companies including General Motors Corp., Intel, Pfizer and Capital One to make the VNRs look like their own reporting.