The New York Times is reporting that many US government made “news” segments are getting rebroadcast without proper attribution across US news networks. They say:
To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The “reporter” covering airport safety was actually a public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department’s office of communications.
Of course Public Information Films have been around for a long time and nothing particularly wrong with them being made in the first place. The problem is when they are used as a substitute for real news reporting and there is nothing to say where it really came from.
As the NYT says, this is a situation where everyone (except the viewing public) benefits:
Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting.
Interestingly the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has handed down a number of decisions describing these as covert propaganda. For example, this is part of what they said regarding some US Office of National Drug Control Policy films:
For the purposes of this opinion, we examined eight VNRs seven that you provided as part of your request, and one more that ONDCP provided to us. Seven of the eight VNRs include prepackaged news stories. As explained below, we conclude that the prepackaged news stories in these VNRs constitute covert propaganda and violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition because ONDCP did not identify itself to the viewing audience as the producer and distributor of these prepackaged news stories.
So, even though it would be better if the news programs identified the segments they showed properly, it doesn’t let the agencies off the hook because they don’t identify themselves in the segment.
If you’re interested in what else the GAO has to say about this then here’s a ready made search.