One Side to Every Story
The bad news is that more and more 'good news' really isn't news at all
The item was legitimate news, there’s no argument about that. And it was also legitimately placed, well down in CFTO’s early evening line-up. If there was something “wrong” with the item, the viewers never knew it. But something was indeed “wrong.”
The story, as introduced by newsreader Tom Gibney and narrated by reporter Jim Wicks for CFTO’s World Beat News, involved the re-introduction of the I.5-litre pop bottle, which had been banned as dangerous two years before. The bottles exploded when dropped, shooting shards of glass like shrapnel. Now, as Wicks reported, a new, improved and safe version was ready to go back on the supermarket shelves. Wicks voiced over scenes of the new bottles being laminated with plastic, and tested by men in white lab coats. No explosions, even after assaults with a drill.
Wicks then came on camera, for the first and only time, and did his wrap-up. Back at the anchor desk, Gibney moved on to the next story.
What was wrong? Unlike the story that preceded it, and unlike the one that followed, the I.S-litre bottle story was not obtained by journalistic means. What was shown on the screen was a visual hand-out, bought and paid for by a very interested party-the Canadian Soft Drink Association. It was produced, not by CFTO’s news team, but privately. However newsworthy, the item was not news.
This fact did not deter Citytv that night either. CityPulse used the same visual hand-out, with Anne Mroczkowski reporting, and gave it a little extra-a quote from Tibor Gregor, the president of the Soft Drink Association, also thoughtfully provided. Once again, there was no journalism involved, no reportage.
The source of the safer bottle “story” was a video news release (VNR) created by a public relations company called Canada News-Wire (CNW). And the real importance of the story was that it marked a new beginning for TV news in Canada: When it ran, in 1982, it was one of the very first VNRs to be produced and aired in this country. Since that time, quietly, VNRs have become something of a growth industry, increasingly used by government as well as private industry, trade unions, charities, and cultural institutions. Video news releases are so close to journalism that it’s difficult to tell the difference. They have a news angle, a lead, and are done in exactly the same fashion as regular newsclips on TV news. But instead of a reporter directing the content, in accordance with journalistic standards, it is directed by the subject of the story, the client. This is what makes a VNR different: instead of aspiring for “truth” and “objectivity,” the VNRs goals lie essentially in sales and public relations. They allow an organization to put its ideas or products on air without being subjected to the trained journalist’s tough or embarrassing questions, without critique and without analysis. Zenith Data Systems Canada Ltd. paid CNW $5,000 to produce and distribute a TV news clip promoting, however subtly, its microcomputer, datasystems 2. The focus was on how the computers had become an important part of the first-year curriculum at Queen’s University in Kingston, Onto The “hard news” involved a new program in which the new computers were used. Zenith’s public relations firm, Argyle Communications, made the arrangements with CNW. The Zenith VNR, says Ryan Wilson, a senior consultant at Argyle, was designed to raise the profile of the company and to “educate” the public about Zenith’s project at Queen’s. CNW, after producing the newsclip, distributed it to 31 Englishlanguage news programs in Canada. “Seven or eight” news programs ran the story, Wilson said. (And more than that, Argyle succeeded in getting Zenith’s computers into the newsrooms’ libraries of stock footage, so if pictures of computers are ever needed, “they’ll use Zenith’s computers.”) Within the Zenith newsclip, the company’s name was discussed, and its computers shown. The chairman of the applied science microcomputer committee at Queen’s, Dr. David Turcke, was paraphrased in praise of the datasystems 2, and made a talking head appearance. Other than Turcke, only students were quoted, all positively. Zenith’s name appeared on the and on various boxes. The advertising was very subtle, which was precisely what the producer wanted. And when the “story” ran on the news there was, of course, no mention of other competing computer firms, and nobody was there to ask about any problems with the university’s new program. The goal was not to “inform” the public, it was to “educate.” “Essentially, it’s advertising,”says CNW’s associate producer Howard Kalnitsky, who made and narrated the Zenith piece. But the advertising aspect should be kept as subtle as possible. If it appears too much like advertising, no news director will allow it to appear on air. “We will not send clips if it’s a commercial. We have turned down major companies [for that],” says CNW’s vice-president and general manager Gordon Eastwood, an ex-Ottawa Journal man who nostalgically keeps an old Journal highway mailbox in his office. So CNW must carefully walk the territory between the advertising firm and the news operation. If it leans too much toward advertising, its VNRs will lose credibility in the newsroom and they will not be used; if it leans too far toward being news, CNW will lose its source clients, the ones who pay the bills.
As its pop bottle VNR established, CNW has successfully maintained its balance while walking that fine line. It has been making VNRs since 1982 and is currently Canada’s largest producer. During its first year CNW made about one a month: now it makes about one a week. (Its competitor, Bob Carr’s Toronto-based Newsroom Two, makes about one a month.) Although VNR production is a significant part of CNW’s operation, it has been well established in the print news release business for 25 years. It has 210 teleprinters in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country and distributes print news releases in the same way the Canadian Press distributes stories. These print releases account for most of CNW’s revenue. CNW is a private company, controlled by two Canadian firms-Public and Industrial Relations Ltd. and Tisdall Clark & Partners Ltd. CNW has offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.
CNW and Newsroom Two each use freelance crews which, on a shoot, could easily be mistaken for a normal news crew. But because their allegiance is to the subject of the VNR, not to the consumers of news, they go very much out of their way to ensure the client and his product are looking their very best. After all, his company is footing the bill.
The cost of a VNR in Canada varies from $2,200 to $6,000, averaging out at $3,000. The total cost reflects the cost of production-a half-day shoot to a full-day shoot-plus the cost of distribution of sending it by courier to 15 or 30 news shows in one or two languages. The news stations don’t pay a cent.
In the U.S., usually a good place to look for future Canadian trends, the practice is more common, and more expensive (a VNR usually costs between $12,000 and $16,000 U.S. because of higher distribution costs). As well, there are companies there that specialize in the production of VNRs. MG Productions is one. Margie Goldsmith of MG was quoted in the Public Relations Journal as saying, “My clients come to me and say, ‘How can I get free air time’?’ I tell them about VNRs.”
Although public relations people are happy to talk about VNRs, news directors are somewhat more reluctant. Most claim they have never even heard of them. Carr attributes their reluctance to the fact that they don’t want to be seen to rely on outsiders to get their news. “You want people to believe that yours is a big, hustling news operation,” Carr says. CNW’sJim Warrick concurs: “They use our stuff quite a bit,” he says. “Of course, they’ll say they don’t use it.”
Stephen Hurlbut, director of news programming at Citytv, says simply, “We don’t use them.” He says the VNRs CityPulse receives will usually go into the library as stock visuals. The news director at Clobal, Reg Thomas, says they would use a VNR only in “extreme circumstances.” If control of the shoot is relinquished, he says, then “you’re just being a rewrite man.” Derwyn Smith, news director of CfTO’s World Beat Neil’s, says he treats a VNR with as much skepticism as any print news release. He would prefer not to use any of the footage, but would “if it was necessary.” And Ken Sherman, reporter for World Beat NeIl’s, insists “we want to be in control.”
“Many of the smaller stations which lack the resources to do the pieces themselves use the wrapped VNR as is,” says Carr. “It makes them look more professional.” One such station is CfTM-TV in Toronto. “We usually do use something from CNW because we’re a small station and don’t have the resources the larger stations have,” says assignment editor Renato Zane. “We don’t use them unless we have to, and when we do, we just try to use the visuals.”
Despite the apparent dislike of VNRs, they are used more often than news directors are willing to admit. Both Newsroom Two and CNW periodically monitor the networks to discover who uses their VNRs and how, but the results of this monitoring are used for internal and promotional purposes only. They are not shown to existing clients because, the producers say, it is too expensive to monitor for everyone. Most clients therefore hire a news monitoring company such as Bowden’s or MediaScan Inc. to watch the networks for them. The VNR producers also send out reply cards with their VNRs. This method of feedback, however, is not completely reliable; the stations are only asked ((they used the VNRs, not how. As a result of his monitoring, Bob Carr concludes that his success rate-the rate that his VNRs at least prod the TV news shows into covering his clients’ stories-averages about 17 out of 24 news shows for Ontario. CNW is less willing to estimate its success, which Gordon Eastwood says is entirely dependent on the nature of the VNR. Some get near total coverage, as did the Co Sensor, a device very similar to a smoke detector except it measures and responds to carbon monoxide in the air. Eastwood claims it got 99 per cent coverage.
This is not to say that all the stations aired the VNR intact. News directors are very reluctant to run VNRs in their pure, prepackaged form. They know that the same VNRs are sitting on all the other news directors’ desks and if every station ran them intact, they’d all look pretty cheap. As well, many news directors like to modify the clips to suit their audiences. More significantly perhaps, they are also under no obligation to use the VNRs as packaged by the producers. The producers, in fact, do everything they can to make it easier for stations to pick what they want from the package. Both CNW and Newsroom Two place the talking head (the interviewee) on one audio channel and the reporter’s voiceover on another. To further simplify the process, the VNR producers also send a timed script with every VNR so the journalists know the exact length of each visual and voice-over. The VNR producers try so hard to segment their VNRs because they know that by doing so, they are increasing the chance that they will be used. Most stations therefore only use segments of the VNRs. Often, even if the stations do not run any part of a VNR, they will use the story idea as a basis for one of their own reports. This in itself is considered an accomplishment by the VNR producers and their clients.
From their viewpoint, the goal of a VNR is to have something discussed on the news, something the client thinks is important. This makes a lot of sense: the news is the most credible air time on television. Exposure on the news-especially uncritical exposure-is worth a hundred times its weight in commercials. To have a Knowlton Nash say on air, “everybody should own a Cabbage Patch doll, I do,” is a public relations man’s wet dream.
Which is close to what really happened (although Nash was never involved). The 1983 craze for Cabbage Patch dolls was enhanced in the U.S. by way of VNRs. Appropriate mob scenes were recorded on video and little stories written about “those amazing dolls.” This led to “Cabbage Patch fever” and further, larger mob scenes, which were recorded again for subsequent VNRs. The public relations man behind Coleco’s Cabbage Patch dolls, Robert Wiener, would sum up the campaign with, “When Bryant Gumbel or Jane Pauley says ‘Here’s the season’s hottest item,’ it means more to consumers than if Cole co says the same thing. The credibility that achieves far outweighs an advertisement’s.” The media coverage achieved with the VNRs (and conventional press releases) was so good that Coleco abandoned its regular advertising campaign for the dolls fully four weeks before Christmas. Sales of the Cabbage Patch dolls were nothing less than phenomenal. The dolls set a sales record for a new toy, $60 million (U.S.) in 1983.
Another early VNR made by CNW, paid for by Timex, was aired during the “spring-forward” change to daylight savings time. The peg was the centennial year of internationally-standardized time zones.
The tight, short piece simply reminded the viewers to put their clocks ahead that night. But, since Timex paid for the item, all the clocks and watches featured were Timex products. There was, however, no mention of the company. Global and CKND (Winnipeg) used the pictures and rewrote the provided script. CFCN (Calgary) and CFRN (Edmonton) used both the visuals and the audio. Timex got its name before the public in a nice friendly fashion, for the cost of production and distribution of the VNR. And what did it really matter? Aside from the question of subtly promoting one clock-and-watch maker over others, not much.
Not every VNR, however, is as neutral as the one from Timex. On Oct. 17, 1982, one of Amoco Canada Petroleum Company Ltd.’s gas wells exploded. Sour gas covered Lodgepole, Alta. Quickly, Amoco commissioned a VNR in which two doctors, or “authorities,” were quoted as saying there were no health hazards connected with the gas; that all alarm was unfounded. But a year later, in Maclean’s magazine (Nov. 14, 1983),the Pembina Area Sour Gas Exposures Committee disagreed, arguing that the potential health hazards had been swept under the carpet.
Admittedly, the video news release is no more than a TV version of the traditional print hand-out, a package to “assist” news directors in covering what the VNR’s sponsor considers to be “news.” But there is a difference between rewriting and running print releases-a practice far from unknown-and airing VNRs intact. Television is, quite simply, a much more powerful medium than print. The 1981 Kent Commission on Newspapers released a poll that showed 54 per cent of Canadian respondents considered television the most believable source of news, fully 20 per cent more than newspapers. The poll also reported that television beat newspapers 53 per cent t029 per cent on the question: “What news source is most fair and unbiased’?,’ And Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove, co-director of the University of Toronto’s McLuhan program in culture and technology, says the two media, print and TV, have very different effects on an audience. The news in a newspaper is “already cleaned up,” and it forces an “intellectual involvement.” Television news tends to be “sensual and emotional; TV can reach an awful lot of people and give them a burst of adrenalin.” Television has impact. Despite the fact that he’s an ex-: newsman, Newsroom Two’s Bob Carr I defends the use of VNRs, charging the media shows “false pride” in criticizing them: he asks, for example, how a small TV news show is supposed to get pictures of the next space walk without visual PR help from NASA? “If there wasn’t some free input there wouldn’t be any news,” he contends. “The media couldn’t function without the input of others.” Gordon Eastwood argues that while VNRs present only one side of the story, they are accurate to that extent and don’t pretend to be the whole story. But, he admits, it’s “kind of deceitful” when news shows run a VNR with only minor cosmetic changes, letting the audience believe the story was “reported.”
This “deceitful” practice is unfortunately not uncommon within the Canadian television news circle. Because the VNR industry is so new to this country, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has not yet established any rules governing use. The television news industry itself has not established any guidelines either. The news directors are therefore under no obligation to run disclaimers across their screens denoting the fact that part of their “news” is actually an advertising supplement (a practice begun by some stations in the U.S.).
If the market continues to grow as it has, regulations and guidelines may become inevitable. But Bob Carr feels the industry will not thrive, or perhaps not even survive in Canada as it has in the U.S. There are, he believes, not enough stations to make production and distribution cost efficient for the client. Carr, in fact, fully expects he’ll be out of the VNR business, and that the industry will crumble within the next couple of years. There are so many other sources of news today, Carr says, journalists don’t need VNRs.
Eastwood, on the other hand, predicts that VNR production will flourish in Canada because “there’s a very open market.”
CNW, in fact, has already taken a large step toward expanding its own VNR production. On Feb. 18 it used satellite transmission for the first time in place of its regular courier service. It produced a VNR for Canada Safeway Limited, notified the client-specified news stations of what to expect, and then delivered the VNR to Satellite Delivery Services. For $1,700, SDS transmitted the video from its satellite dish to Anik D, a Canadian satellite, which relayed it to western Canada. Those stations wanting the item opened the appropriate channel and recorded. The two-to-three minute clip played over and over again for 30 minutes.
Satellite transmission has definite implications for the relationship between VNRs and television news. Because it is cheaper to send VNRs via satellite-reaching 82 English-language stations for one flat rate the VNR route becomes more attractive to I clients. Theoretically, anyway. So if Bob I Carr is wrong and Gordon Eastwood is I right, we have probably only seen the beginnings of a whole new media industry.
And now the word on (some of) their sponsors: the Ontario Ministry of Housing and Recreation, of Citizenship and Culture, of Natural Resources, the Canadian Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the National Gallery of Canada, HoneywelJl, Timex, Purina, Canadian Real Estate Association, Ontario Separate School Trustees Association, Sunnybrook Medical Centre, the Bank of Montreal, the Royal Bank of Canada, Paul Masson & Co., National Dairy Council of Canada…
THE HANDOUT IS QUICKER
THAN THE EYE How the government makes ‘news’ without flak from the opposition.
One of the better examples of how governments can bypass or attempt to bypass the journalistic process comes out of a video news release commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Transportation and Communications. The subject was a policy paper, released by the government on July 15, 1985 (the same day as the VNR), on deregulation of the railway and airline industry. It presented one side of a highly contentious and controversial issue, supporting deregulation and never acknowledging that there are experts who argue forcefully that deregulation in the United States has led to a serious decline in airline safety.
Under the direction of Argyle Communications, the ministry’s PR firm, Canada News-Wire produced three VNRs at a combined cost of about $10,000. The minister, Don Mazankowski, was featured, but obviously no opposition spokespersons or critics of any description were interviewed. The hand-outs were distributed to 71 English-language and 33 French-language stations, and each of the three was aimed at a different region of the country. What follows is a transcript of the VNR distributed to Eastern Canada.
Suggested studio lead into story: “Canada’s transportation industry should be opening under a new set of rules within a year, says the federal government.”
Reporter’s voice-over on transportation scenes:
“A policy paper released in Ottawa today outlines proposals to reduce regulations governing the nation’s airlines and railways, freeing them to offer more services to travelling Canadians, along with more competitive fares. Trucking and shipping companies will also be affected. The new deal is said to offer special advantages to Atlantic Canada. Transport Minister Don Mazankowski had this to say about the government’s plans:”
“Essentially, the new policy will reduce the regulatory burden quite substantially, allowing the transportation system more freedom to move, more freedom to grow and freedom to compete, and thereby providing more innovative and more competitive services right across the board. Atlantic Canada relies very heavily on transportation services and again, with the competitive forces of the market place we’ll certainly give them a better variety of services at lower rates and ah, particularly in the area of air services ah, in the commuter and regional and transborder context. We believe by scaling down the regulatory burden, freeing access, ah, Atlantic Canada will be much better served by air services. “
Reporter’s voice-over on transportation scenes:
“The sweeping proposals to reduce regulations represent the biggest overhaul in the history of Canadian transportation, Ottawa says. New airlines will be able to start up operations, and existing airlines will be able to launch new routes simply by showing they are ‘fit, willing and able.’ Currently, they must prove public convenience or necessity. And airlines will be able to set their own fares, although the government will review fare increases with the power to roll back excessive hikes. The new legislation will bring a lot of changes to the way Canada’s railroads do business. Railways will be able to sign confidential contracts with shippers of manufactured goods or natural resources who qualify for special low rates because of high volumes. This will assist Canadian shippers and bring back transporter business lost to American railroads. And if you’re served by only one railroad, you’ll be able to transfer your goods to another line if you can get a better deal. Canada’s shipbuilding industry is expected to benefit by measures to reserve the coasting trade. ..That’s anything up to 200 miles off shore, exclusively to Canadian ships. But most of all, the travelling public is expected to benefit from better and more frequent service, more competitive fares, and more efficient shipping of goods. The new transport paper also calls for replacement of the existing governing agency, the Canadian Transport Commission, with a new regulatory agency. It could be de-centralized, with offices in Western and Atlantic Canada as well as in Ottawa. The new National Transportation Authority, says Transport Minister Don Mazankowski, will promote competition and encourage the transportation industry to be more efficient in serving Canadian travellers and shippers.”
“We believe that ah, transportation system is mature enough and it can provide the kind of innovative services right across the board and ah, and with the freedom to compete, freedom to grow, freedom to experiment and provide services right across the country that were not heretofor provided.”
Campbell Morrison was a Staff Writer for the Spring 1986 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.