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Media Madness
by Wendy Priesnitz

media madness
Photo (c) Peter Denovo/Shutterstock

“Perceptions are real. They color what we see...what we believe...how we behave. They can be managed...to motivate behavior...to create positive business results.” ~ Burson-Marsteller public relations company

Traditionally, most media outlets have intentionally separated their editorial and advertising departments. The news was reported, regardless of its impact on advertisers. Increasingly, this separation is being eroded.

Awhile back, there was a televised news item about the difficulties experienced by the owners of the City of Toronto's domed stadium when they tried to wash the outside of the dome. Well, that wasn't really a news item at all; it was an advertisement dressed in news' clothing, supplied to the television station by the makers of Sunlight detergent, which was, viewers couldn’t help noticing, the brand used in that large-scale cleaning operation.

This piece of hype, which appeared on prime time newscasts, went to the television stations in the form of a video news release (VNR). VNRs are complete news stories, written, filmed, and produced by public relations firms. They are designed to appear to be genuine news items. And producers often air them without revealing their origin. According to a Nielsen Media Research study, about 80 percent of television stations in the United States use VNRs. More than seventy percent use up to ten a day!

One company supplying VNRs to Canadian stations is News Canada, which also creates already-typeset newspaper columns and canned radio shows. Their clients have included organizations like the Canadian Petroleum Association and the Conservative Party of Canada, as well as corporations like General Motors, the Bank of Montreal and Shoppers Drug Mart. News Canada claims in its promotional literature that “editors publish more than ninety-five percent of News Canada’s typeset columns with the message unchanged”.

A more overt blurring of the news-advertiser boundaries occurred during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. According to the Multinational Monitor, Nike’s sponsorship of CBS Sports’ coverage of the Olympics included reporters wearing parkas adorned with the Nike logo. Reporter Roberta Baskin, whose story about Nike’s less-than-perfect labor practices in Vietnam was aired on the investigative program 48 Hours in 1996, wasn’t pleased with the sports reporters acting as billboards for the athletic shoemaker. According to Multinational Monitor’s reporters Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, Baskin believes that Nike’s sponsorship has caused CBS to avoid further negative coverage of the company. CBS News President Andrew Heyward called Baskin’s anger “intemperate” and denied any connection between Nike’s sponsorship and the network’s news coverage.

Magazines, whose financial situation is often more precarious than that of newspapers, are especially vulnerable to the manipulation of editorial by advertisers, or to the lure of free editorial.

Magazines are especially vulnerable to the manipulation of editorial by advertisers, or to the lure of free editorial. (We have a very strict ethics policy here at Natural Life Magazine that prohibits giving free editorial to advertisers, as well as other practices of that type.)

Some large advertisers have, for some years now, been asking mainstream magazine editors to submit articles to them before publication. Corporations like Chrysler and Procter & Gamble would rather pull their advertising than risk having their corporate image tarnished or being attacked by special interest groups as a result of their ad accompanying a controversial article.

The journalism profession frowns on this practice. Magazine industry associations in both the U.S. and Canada have condemned the practice of submitting articles to prior review by advertisers. And writers' and editors' organizations have established rules of conduct for their members. However, the practice continues.

In fact, an increasing number of magazines intentionally blur the lines between editorial content and advertising in order to bring in revenue. Many specialty magazines willingly publish advertorials – articles submitted by and promoting companies who advertise alongside the articles. In some cases, it is clear to the reader that the article was written by the advertiser; in others, the editorial is presented as fact in spite of its bias. 

Why is this happening? Well, it's becoming increasingly difficult to separate the news makers from the news gatherers. Most of North America’s newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations are owned by the same transnational corporations about which they report. 

Additionally, the corporatization of the media often leads to budget cutbacks, staff reductions, and less time for careful research in the news departments. As the corporate mindset becomes entrenched, news becomes just another product.

There are other, more subtle, ways in which corporations use the media to further their own economic agendas.

Public relations firms are very good at their work of managing public perceptions to create positive business results. For instance, in the lead-up to the Climate Summit in Kyoto last December, millions of dollars were spent on anti-global warming propaganda by corporations that will suffer from restrictions on the burning of fossil fuels.

According to the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank that is often used as a source by the media, global warming does not exist as an environmental problem. In a brochure advertising a conference to debunk global warming, the Institute states that: “The public has been barraged with apocalyptic predictions of global warming. This campaign has been so successful that global warming is now reported as fact...the evidence, however, does not support the predictions.”

As the corporate mindset becomes entrenched, news becomes just another product.

Another common way for companies to influence the public agenda, especially in the health and environment fields, is to create phony grassroots organizations whose mission is to spread disinformation about an issue and sometimes to pressure politicians regarding pending legislation. They have catchy, innocuous sounding names like Forests Forever and the Global Climate Coalition and their corporate roots are cleverly hidden – even in the news items that report on their activities.

To help defeat anti-global warming initiatives, a coalition of American energy industry organizations formed a group called the Information Council for the Environment (ICE) in 1991 to, as its literature put it, “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The half-a-million dollar campaign was coordinated by a Washington-based public relations company called Bracy Williams & Co.

People working against clearcutting of old growth forests have long been aware that NPR – the Canadian arm of the world’s largest public relations firm Burson-Marsteller was behind a campaign to ally First Nation peoples with logging companies against environmentalists. Burson-Marsteller has a history of working on behalf of BC’s logging companies, having formed the British Columbia Forest Alliance (BFCA), which is funded by companies like Louisiana-Pacific, Mitsubishi, and Weyerhaueser.  

Burson-Marsteller also created the National Smokers Alliance, which lobbies for smokers’ rights on behalf of the Philip Morris tobacco company.

Governments are also contributing to skewing of the news by encouraging libel chill. Thirteen American states have passed what are called food disparagement laws. They give the perishable food industry the power to sue people who criticize their products, using standards of evidence which dramatically shift the burden of proof in favor of the industry.

These laws were the basis for a couple of libel lawsuits that have recently been in the news. Texas cattlemen claimed their industry was defamed on the Oprah Winfrey show and that cattle prices dropped severely as a result of a discussion about whether or not mad cow disease was a threat in the United States. Even though, at the end of February, Winfrey was acquitted of the charge of spreading false information because she said she wouldn’t eat hamburger, the mere threat of such lawsuits is bound to further erode the quality of information provided by the mainstream media.

Contact:
The Media Foundation
www.adbusters.org

PR Watch
Center for Media & Democracy
www.prwatch.org

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
www.fair.org

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and the author of thirteen books. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine in 1998.

 

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