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VNRs under attack.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it plans to scrutinize video news releases distributed by pharmaceutical companies. According to press reports, some drug companies have responded by eliminating the releases from their marketing efforts, a reaction that could spread to other industries as well. The news has raised old questions about this legitimate and effective promotional tool. We asked one of the nation's major VNR producers to examine the issue.

Video news releases periodically come under attack by some who view them as a ruse--advertising parading as news. They are regarded as insidious because viewers cannot distinguish them from "real news."

This perception is only partly right and mostly wrong. Who really is The Viewer and what really is a Video News Release?

Video releases look like TV news in the same way that press releases read like newspaper articles. And the moving pictures we distribute for television are the equivalent of the eight-by-10 glossies we send to newspapers and magazines. Their purpose is the same: to encourage coverage and to provide materials the reporter might not otherwise obtain. In the case of a health-related video release, that might include through-the-microscope views, computer simulations, and taped comments from a medical authority. They also help the newscast producer see the subject can be visualized.

A VNR is not to be confused with an "informercial," a program-length advertisement which, like all advertising, is subject to regulation. The video news release was developed by press relations experts to answer the broadcast reporter's cry, "Give me something I can use!" It is a cry I heard many times and often uttered myself during a decade in TV news (at the CBS Washington bureau, at independent news services, and at the ABC Washington affiliate). Bombarded with stacks of printed releases and black-and-white photos, television producers are led to think no one "out there" realizes they work in a visual medium. At the same time, the newsroom's limited resources cannot provide original footage for every story. These realities have led to a cardinal rule of television news: When two stories of equal news value compete for time in the newscast, go for the one with the pictures (or go for both, but the item without video gets only 15 seconds).

The TV newsroom, not the living room, is where you will find the true audience for video news releases. The narration track that accompanies most, but not all, VNRs tells the company's story the same way the reporter might. It is a way of saying to the journalist, "See? This story can be told in 90 seconds or less, in terms your audience can understand, and with pictures."

The broadcast journalism profession, led by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, long ago came to grips with the proper use of VNRs. They are merely one source of raw material from which news reports can be created. When provided with a video release, a responsible journalist checks the facts, attributes material to its sources, and digs for opposing views. Reporters are encouraged to supplement release material with their own information and footage, if it will increase the story's accuracy and balance.

In no way does this suggest that those of us who produce VNRs are engaged in a game of "caveat emptor" with the media, trying to slip false and misleading claims past inattentive reporters. As career communicators, our stock in trade is credibility with journalists. No self-respecting account representative would sacrifice credibility for a one-shot hit on the evening news, and no responsible client would ask it.

By its latest actions, the FDA is reviving a debate that broadcasters put to rest long ago: When reporting good news (as the topics of VNRs almost always are) how do you avoid promoting the subject? And should you? If a revolutionary product is developed, is it the journalist's duty to avoid reporting the story because it might result in sales for the manufacturer? The answer: If the public deserves to know it, tell it. The promotional consequence is secondary.

Who's to judge? Journalists decide what's news -- not companies, not public relations firms, and certainly not government agencies. When all is said and done, if it's in the newscast, it's news.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; video news releases
Author:Gallina, Emil
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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