FCC to probe fake news

[CBC]

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has begun an investigation of the use of video news releases, sometimes called "fake news," at U.S. television stations.

Video news releases are packaged stories paid for by businesses or interest groups. They use actors to portray reporters and use the same format as television news stories.

The FCC has mailed letters to at least 42 stations asking station managers about agreements between the station and the creators of the video news releases.

The action follows an April report on fake TV news by two media watchdog groups, the Center for Media Democracy in Wisconsin and Free Press in Northampton, Maryland. They recorded incidents where video news releases had been used at 77 stations in a study titled Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed.

Of particular concern to the watchdogs were instances where the fake news items had run without informing viewers that they had been created by an outside group.

FCC rules demand that stations disclose "the nature, source and sponsorship of the material they are viewing" in video news releases.

"The public is misled by individuals who present themselves to be independent unbiased experts or reporters, but are actually shills promoting a prepackaged corporate agenda," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said in a statement.

The FCC has asked stations whether any "consideration" was given to them in return for airing the material.

"You can't tell anymore the difference between what's propaganda and what's news," Adelstein said.

Among the video news releases uncovered were an item on ethanol plants aired on a Louisiana station that was created by a public relations firm on behalf of Siemens AG, a corporation with a financial stake in the construction of ethanol plants.

In another case, a Boston station edited and re-voiced a video segment produced by an outside company on behalf of Toshiba, Fisher-Price and Scholastic, whose kids' products were featured in it.

The item ran at Christmas, without any indication to viewers it had been created as a news release.

Diane Farsetta, senior researcher with the Center for Media and Democracy and co-author of the study, said stations did not appear to have been paid for airing the stories.

Instead, they aired them because they are free and fill air time.

"The main reason is economy. These are free stories that are given to stations that are continually under-resourced," she said.

The media watchdog group is recommending the FCC fine stations who have violated the rules. The federal regulator can levy fines of up to $32,500 US per violation.

The FCC has given the stations 60 days to respond to its letters.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey