The news anchors for KOKH-25 in Oklahoma City introduced a report on Internet identity theft last November like they would any other segment during the station’s nightly broadcast.
They told viewers that Jim Lawrence had a story about “phishing,” a scam aimed at getting financial information from internet users through e-mail.
The segment, narrated by Lawrence, alerted viewers to the dangers of responding to e-mail that asks for personal information and recommended software, like the kind available from a company called Trend Micro, as a “first line of defense.”
They were not told that Lawrence is an employee of the public relations firm that produced the entire report for Trend Micro.
The segment aired by KOKH, a Fox network affiliate, was one of 36 video news releases tracked during a ten month period last year by the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group for the public relations industry based in Wisconsin.
In a study published last month, the center found that 77 stations across the country aired video news releases by three different public relations firms without attribution a total of 98 times.
In most of the instances, according to the study, stations did not include any independent reporting and more that a third of the time aired the segments entirely unedited as KOKH did.
The study comes in the wake of a report by the New York Times last spring that hundreds of video news releases had been produced by the federal government without attribution.
In response, Congress passed measures to ensure that the origin of those releases was disclosed and the FCC issued a warning that stations must inform viewers of their sources.
Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy said the recent study had been initiated in part because of concern expressed by viewers.
“They want to know if the news that they’re watching is real news or it’s being scripted by the subjects of the report,” Farsetta said in a telephone interview.
She blamed the persistence of video news releases on growing pressure in the television news industry to be more profitable rather than play the traditional role of establishing credibility at local stations.
Farsetta posted some of the feedback from station managers and producers online. She wrote that besides “no comment,” the most common response was that the stations had aired the segments because of “mistakes or confusion.”
“It was a glitch in the system,” said John Rossi, general manager of KOKH in a telephone interview. “It had nothing to do with money. It had nothing to do with pressure.”
Rossi explained that a service the station subscribes to, called Pathfire, which also carries regular news releases, had failed to label the “phishing” segment properly.
Disclosing the source of the video news releases would not satisfy everyone however.
“It’s not just the deception that bothers me. It’s the fact that this would ever appear on a news show as if it were news,” said Diana Huffman, a professor of journalism ethics and media law at the University of Maryland. “I don’t know how you can defend it at all.”
Though Huffman said she doubts the stations broke any laws, Farsetta passed along the study’s findings to Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein at the FCC.
“At least some of the instances we were able to document do break current FCC regulations,” Farsetta said, adding that she hoped the report would spur the agency to clarify or even strengthen its policies.
Farsetta said a few of the stations did make public statements after the report.
For instance, WNEP-16 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said in a statement: “We have a duty to our viewers to present the news accurately and fairly and to properly attribute the sources of all the materials that go into our reports. . We sincerely apologize to our viewers.”