Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Local U.S. News Stations Aired an Amazon-Produced Promotional Video, Most Without Acknowledging Its Source

Zach Rael of KOCO 5:

Just got an email from Amazon’s PR team with a pre-edited news story and script to run in our shows. They are selling this as giving our viewers an “inside look” at the company’s response to COVID‑19.

Tim Burke, Courier:

While most TV news professionals have scoffed at the idea of running Amazon-provided content as news, at least 11 stations across the country ran some form of the package on their news broadcasts. The package — you can view the script Amazon provided to news stations here — was produced by Amazon spokesperson Todd Walker. Only one station, Toledo ABC affiliate WTVG, acknowledged that Walker was an Amazon employee, not a news reporter, and that the content had come from Amazon.

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Amazon responded by stating the video and script were published to Business Wire as are many other companies’ in-house produced content for media organizations.

While it’s true that many companies use Business Wire to distribute press releases, it’s rare to see news-lookalike materials for broadcasters to simply drop in. It’s kind of gross for Amazon to be creating material that is clearly intended to be used, in full, as a news item, but that’s nothing on how unprofessional and embarrassing it is for even a handful of broadcasters run it without disclosing its source.

Update: Al Tompkins, Poynter:

In the TV business, these so-called video news releases, or VNRs, are so 1998. Frankly, I have not heard of anybody using such things on the air in years because they have been around since the early 1990s and have been loudly condemned as commercials disguised as news stories.

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Journalism organizations like the Radio Television Digital News Association have spoken to the problems that come with VNRs for years. It is not to say a station can never ethically use a company-supplied video or even a statement, but the public has to understand where the video came from and why we are using it rather than verifying the content with our own eyes and lenses. But even using the video with attribution does not release journalists from pointing out that Amazon’s safety claims are at odds with warehouse worker’s claims.

David Barstow and Robin Stein, reporting for the New York Times in 2005:

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.

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.

It is sometimes hard to remember the failures of past administrations when the current one eagerly sheds itself of all ethics.