Journalists Outraged by VNRs – Finally!

UPDATE MARCH 15, 2005: More than 20 federal agencies have been caught producing and distributing VNRs…)

Earlier in CONTENTIOUS, I wrote about the controversy that erupted recently over a video news release (VNR) created by the US Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a public relations campaign to increase public support for new Medicare legislation. This VNR took the form of a fake news broadcast, complete with fake reporters asking scripted softball questions that yielded equally scripted softball answers.

Apparently, these spots aired on dozens of US newscasts. The source and nature of the footage was not identified. That’s outraged a lot of journalists, and many journalism organizations and publications have recently given voice and weight to that outrage. (See list later in this article.)

I’m glad to see this outrage, since I’ve long believed that when news organizations air or publish any PR-supplied materials without clearly identifying the source, they are misleading their audience as well as abdicating their public and professional responsibility.

In my opinion, VNRs are not evil – unscrupulous journalists are. Airing an unidentified VNR falls into the same ethical pit as reprinting a press release as a straight news story. It’s bad journalism, plain and simple. And it happens far too often, in all kinds of news outlets.

I do wish that, in general and on an individual level, journalists would be more forthright about acknowledging the news media’s longstanding complicity in this particular ethical problem…

The fact is, for decades too many reporters and editors have found the lure of free, prepackaged content (complete with pictures and sound, ready to plug into their newshole) too appealing to resist. I understand increasing deadline pressures, market competition, and shrinking news budgets – but I’m sorry, letting PR materials “pass” as news is NOT acceptable.

I ask my journalism colleagues who are covering this controversy to point the finger at themselves, as appropriate, on the matter of running unidentified PR-supplied materials – not just at HHS for creating this particular VNR, or at the various stations guilty of airing it. I ask all journalists and editors to pledge to their audiences that if they use any PR-supplied content it will be clearly identified as such.

Really, that’s not a lot to ask for, is it?

…Here’s a rundown of responses so far from journalists and journalism organizations to this current VNR flap, as well as notable news coverage:


A joint statement of protest was released March 18 by the following journalism organizations:

  • American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors
  • American Society of Business Publication Editors
  • American Society of Journalists and Authors
  • Association of Health Care Journalists
  • Association of Hispanic Journalists
  • Criminal Justice Journalists
  • Journalism and Women Symposium
  • National Association of Science Writers
  • National Conference of Editorial Writers
  • National Press Foundation
  • National Society of Newspaper Columnists
  • Native American Journalists Association
  • Online News Association
  • Religion Newswriters Association
  • Society of American Business Editors and Writers
  • Society of Environmental Journalists
  • Society of Professional Journalists
  • UNITY, an alliance of the four major organizations of journalists of color

The really good thing about the version of the protest published by SPJ is that it takes into account the news media’s complicity by being willing to air unidentified VNRs.

In addition, on March 18 the 031804.shtml”>guidelines on using VNRs.


Journalists aren’t the only people who are outraged over the HHS VNR flap. Karen Ryan, who portrayed the featured reporter in the English-language version of the VNR, was annoyed that she was labeled “an actress” in media reports of the controvery.

On March 18, Ryan told CJR’s CampaignDesk that she is an ethical PR professional “who plays by the rules,” not an actress. Said Ryan in that interview, “To me, an actress would have a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card. An actress is someone that’s playing someone they’re not.”

The Center for Media & Democracy’s Disinfopedia recently published a new entry on Karen Ryan.

Also, according to a March 24 Reuters story, Democratic US Senators Ted Kennedy and Frank Lautenberg sent a letter of protest to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the HHS Medicare VNR.

And a March 10 report from the US General Accounting Office (GAO) found that other HHS-funded Medicare promotions did not violate a ban on using taxpayer money for partisan purposes. However, these promotions did omit important facts about the bill’s drug benefits.

The US Consumer Products Safety Commission frequently uses VNR for consumer safety announcements. This federal agency has clearly specified VNR Goals and Guidelines.


So far, the Web site of the Public Relations Society of America has nothing to say about the HHS VNR controversy.

Similarly, so far this controversy remains unmentioned on the US government Web sites for the Dept. of Health and Human Services, Medicare Reform, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (which runs the pro-Medicare-reform “Right Answer” ad campaign).


  • Abused by the News, March 22: Sell-A-Vision News, by Daniel Price. Includes a brief history of VNRs and how they’ve been used by the news media, as well as three questions to consider when trying to discern whether a suspicious TV news segment may be a VNR.
  • Atlanta-Journal Constitution, March 19: Bush-Friendly “News” Flashes Controversial, by Marlon Manuel

One thought on “Journalists Outraged by VNRs – Finally!

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  1. It would seem the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), which in some circles is seen as more credible than the PRSA, is equally silent on this issue. That’s very disturbing to someone like me, for a host of reasons I won’t get into here…