Senate VNR Bill Largely Protects Status Quo
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Senate VNR Bill Largely Protects Status Quo

The Senate Commerce Committee has approved legislation that would require federal agencies to clearly label their sponsorship of video news release—a practice followed by producers today—but stopped short of requiring a continuous “produced by the U.S. government” disclaimer.

Paul Holmes

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Senate Commerce Committee has approved legislation that would require federal agencies to clearly label their sponsorship of video news release—a practice followed by producers today—but stopped short of requiring a continuous “produced by the U.S. government” disclaimer to run for the duration of the VNR.

The measure originally introduced earlier this year by Democrats led by Senators Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and John Kerry of Massachusetts would have required continuous discloser and would have banned broadcasters and cable TV operators from deleting the disclosures. That move had troubled many observers, concerned that it would have set a precedent by allowing government—for the first time—to mandate what broadcasters could and could  not air.

But the bill approved by the committee Thursday would require prepackaged news stories produced by the government to include a “clear notification” of the sponsorship, and not a continuous disclaimer. It would allow the Federal Communications Commission to come up with rules for when stations must include the labels.

The bill also makes clear that the labeling requirements apply only when broadcasters and cable TV operators opt to air “prepackaged news stories”—defined as “a complete, ready-to-use audio or video news segment designed to be indistinguishable from a news segment produced by an independent news organization”—in their entirety.

Almost all VNRs already disclose the organization that produced them, and very few are aired in their entirety. So critics of the proposed legislation—in the public relations realm and the broadcast industry—welcomed the changes. The legislation was provoked by VNRs produced by the Department of Health & Human Services and later by the Department of Education, both of which were found to be “covert domestic propaganda” by the Government Accountability Office.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said the bill would allow television news producers to continue using footage from government-produced VNRs for B-roll in their own stories and would leave the decision about how to identify the material up to station news personnel.

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