KHSL-TV dinged for ‘fake’ news

Last July, KHSL’s Action News ran a piece on vacationing and the importance of having auto insurance. The segment had been pulled off of the CBS feed and was introduced by Melissa Cabral. It ran about a minute and a half.

The spot was actually a subtle ad produced by a public-relations company called Medialink Worldwide for the Allstate Insurance Company. Such a product is known in the trade as a “video news release,” or VNR, and is essentially a commercial disguised as news. This particular segment ran in both Chico and San Francisco (on KGO-7), according to a recent report by the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group.

While television news stations are bombarded by VNRs, they normally don’t get past the producers. This one made it past the gatekeepers because, Cabral explained, it was innocuous.

It was “a generic travel story,” she said in a phone interview. “There was no blatant commercial for any product, no hidden agenda or advertisement for a product.” Cabral now works for a CBS station in Florida.

But, while the VNR didn’t tout any particular brand of insurance, the one person interviewed from the insurance industry was from Allstate. And, overall, the piece strongly advised people to buy the optional insurance when they rent an automobile, even if they already have good insurance on their own car. “Vacation should be a time to relax, and taking the insurance on your rental car may give you the extra piece of mind to do so,” intoned the narrator, whose affiliation was never revealed.

Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports, advises just the contrary. The insurance sold by car rental companies is excessively expensive and unnecessary if you already have collision insurance, the nonprofit group says. This of course was not mentioned in the report KHSL aired.

Twice in 2006, first in April and later in November, the CMD issued reports documenting the widespread use of VNRs—on 77 stations in the first report and another 46, including KHSL, in the second. In almost every case, the fact that the material was a VNR was not disclosed.

The advantage to advertisers is obvious: cheap air time. However, as Morris Brown, who teaches public relations at Chico State University, notes, the effectiveness of VNRs is dependent on how many stations run them.

“They take time, effort and money,” he explained. “It’s nice that it lets you tell your story without depending on a news crew to come out, but if nobody plays it, then you have to look for another way to get your message across.”

After the piece ran on KHSL, News Director Trish Coder said, one group called to ask whether it had been attributed to Medialink. Cabral said that one of the tricky things about VNRs is that they often don’t come with attribution, only a tag saying that they were not produced by the company that owns the feeds—in this case CBS.

For reporters, VNRs pose a dilemma. Reporters don’t know whether the facts are correct, Cabral said.

In any event, using them is generally considered unacceptable.

“We ran a VNR once, and we’re never planning to run one again,” she said. “Everyone is aware what a VNR is, and all the producers know it has no place in the newscast.”