Monday, March 28, 2005
There is a long history to the press release. A press release is written to provide easy access to information to reporters at newspapers and TV stations. Often it is even written in a manner so that whole sentences and paragraphs can be lifted directly from the release and inserted almost verbatim into a "story." Of course, the reporter needs to be aware that the PR from General Electric on GE's nuclear reactor might not be the full story or might selectively choose favorable "experts" as sources. Now suppose the person writing a story on GE is in the NBC newsroom. NBC is owned by GE. You can see how this might influence how the story is written.
Public relations and advertising are the bane of our times. In many ways, these two industries underwrite much of the "news" we get every day from TV and newspapers. Think about this: TV broadcasting is 100% paid for by advertising. Not 50%, not 70%, but 100%. Now also take into account that at least some of the information being provided (and used) for news reports comes from press releases and the like, and it's easy to see just how weighed the system is in favor of advertisers and corporations.
For years, the government has also been supplementing the information to reporters and news networks. The so called Video News Releases (VNR) are often completely professional and, well, complete reports, ready to air. They are prepared by a Public Relations firm in consultation with a particular government agency. They often have a "reporter" (who is not really a reporter) doing intro, outro, and voiceover. You may not be aware of it but regular news reports usually have a very defined structure, narrative, and pacing. VNRs use these structural signposts to cue you into thinking you're watching a "real" news report when you are actually watching a promotional advertisement for the government.
Although the use of VNRs apparently goes back to the Clinton administration, the Bush Admin has substantially increased their numbers and distribution. Take a look at this Google search which just adds "gov" to "video news release". This brings up the .gov sites that mention VNRs.
It's difficult to counteract VNRs. You might never know you've seen one. The only antidote I've found is to regularly visit sites that are active in presenting differing views, alternative news, and media criticism. But I do this anyway because most mainstream news seems to studiously avoid controversy except in the most superficial manner.
Here are some sites I like:
Common Dreams bills themselves as "Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community."
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) is a kind of media watchdog organization. Not too good at breaking news but good at identifying bias and holes in media coverage of stories.
Media Matters for America is a very active site monitoring rightwing talk show hosts and other stories, factchecking and shining a light on particularly egregious and nasty utterances from these hosts and others.
Democracy Now! has done stories about VNRs in the past. It is one of the few real counterbalances to the current rightward swing of the media.
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