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Bay Area stations use canned content designed to look like local news

News from nowhere


See response from the story's creator

Mr. Hicks reports on Innovis.

The three-minute "cover story" on the Jan. 15 news looked like a powerful local investigative report, just what you'd expect from a trusted news source like NBC.

But little about the story was as it appeared.

NBC 11's consumer exposť purported to reveal a "secret" credit bureau that "may be collecting your information and selling it without your knowledge." And that information, anchor Brad Hicks warned, was so suspect that viewers were urged to contact the bureau to be sure it hadn't ruined their credit rating.

Ominous as that sounds, each claim was misleading. The company, Innovis, isn't secret. It doesn't report to those who might approve your car or house loan. And according to the story's own sources, it's received far fewer complaints than its competitors -- only two nationally in three years.

KNTV-NBC 11 might have discovered that, if it had done any of its own reporting. But that night, Mr. Hicks was more actor than reporter. He appears to have merely reshuffled a script produced by a low-profile content provider in suburban Atlanta that distributes canned video "news."

For decades, television stations have quietly outsourced portions of their local news program. But in the last five years, scores of broadcasters around the country have discovered a resource that helps them serve up pre-packaged stories, leaving viewers with the mistaken impression that journalists in their communities did much of the research, writing and on-camera interviewing.

NBC 11 defended its un-credited use of canned news. "When you have a news service, you don't always independently verify where each individual piece of information came from," said Jim Sanders, the station's vice president of news. "What becomes important for the audience is where they're getting the information, not where you, the journalist, are getting it from."

But ethics codes disagree and some prominent journalists decry broadcasting unidentified content from outsiders.

"Professional electronic journalists should: Clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders."

-- Radio-Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics

"This kind of 'reporting' is the result of budget cuts in local news departments that no longer have enough staff to produce both daily material and the kind of stories that feel promotable for sweeps or other competitive purposes," said Harry Fuller, an editor with CNBC Europe in London who formerly was news director at KGO Channel 7 and KPIX Channel 5.

Twenty years ago, he said, stations always identified video from other stations, networks or other providers. "I think that's no longer a policy in many newsrooms.

"It has long since ceased to matter to many news departments whether they are 'cheating' the viewers. It only matters if the news department can win the ratings."

There's no where there

Many prefabricated stories contain no local sources at all. The outside production company, NewsProNet, interviews people across the country, then deliberately omits the sources' locations, even screening out regionally distinguishable scenery and accents.

The benefits of mass-producing local news are obvious. Buying pre-packaged, ready-to-air video is cheaper than hiring reporters. And NewsProNet says it picks its story topics based on market research. The company claims that these stories boost ratings among viewers with good customer potential, "each one Impact Tested for audience appeal."

Unlabeled, canned investigative reports are also better for a station's hometown image because they "feel" local. NBC 11 emphasizes its localness, calling itself "The Bay Area's NBC 11."

But there are downsides as well. Some critics argue that mass-produced stories could displace local, more relevant news.

Recently, plagiarism scandals at The New York Times and elsewhere have caused news organizations around the world to scrutinize their coverage for material lifted from other sources. While few journalism ethicists are ready to use the "p" word with services like NewsProNet, many say it's deceptive for television producers to strip out sources' locations and authorize local reporters to take credit for work they didn't do.

"They're not stealing the information, but it raises questions about news standards," said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS and CNN and now executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast journalism education project in Washington, D.C. "This is not great practice, buying news and disguising it."

One producer at NBC 11, who asked not to be named, said management sets no guidelines about how to identify outside material: "I assume that there are no rules, because if there were, we'd break them all the time."

Behind the curtain

For broadcasters facing tight local competition and the perpetual pressure to cut costs, the service provides a handy tool: instant "local" reporting. Stories come complete with scripts and tape, graphics and music soundtracks. Though adding local content is ideal, the service's promotional literature advises, stations need only add a local voice and it's "ready to air!"

Journalists ordinarily strive to deliver all the basics about a story: the who, what, when, where, how and why. But in a subtle departure from those standards, the company's producers say they usually make a point of omitting the where, saying that to include sources' locations would be distracting for the viewer.

The result is footage designed to have the feel of being shot in any television market in the country.

A few weeks ago, Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said he was investigating ways to ensure that the corporate media consolidation he is helping to foster proceeds without the loss of broadcasters' local character. At the same time, though, NewsProNet is pushing in the opposite direction, having made a science of intentionally homogenized news.

If you've seen a NewsProNet story, chances are you'd never know it. The service's business model depends on secrecy. It distributes stories only to one station in each regional television market, which helps to maintain the illusion that they all are airing "exclusives."

"We're a business-to-business content service, providing content for local stations for their use with their talent," said NewsProNet's president, Michael Shoer. "At the end of the day, no, we're not looking to have our name on our stories."

He added: "As a practical matter, it's cumbersome. How do you source everything if you're in a fast-paced visual medium?"

Mr. Shoer said he designed the service to free up local reporters to do quality work on important stories. But across the country, news directors boast that NewsProNet lets them increase ratings at a time when their bosses are slashing newsroom budgets and laying off journalists.

Testimonials on NewsProNet's Web site strongly suggest that local stations use the service to replace their own staff. Jill Jensen, news director of KQTV-TV in St. Joseph, Mo., wrote that canned NewsProNet stories made Sunday night news ratings grow, "in a season of cutbacks and wage freezes."

In the Bay Area, three stations use NewsProNet. NBC 11 has exclusive rights to use two NewsProNet products, including SweepsFeed, designed especially to lift ratings during the months of the year when viewership is measured for advertisers.

Mr. Shoer said that NewsProNet "exclusive" products also go to KSTS Channel 48, the Spanish-language Telemundo station in San Jose, and KGO, the ABC station in San Francisco. A KGO staffer said the material sometimes finds its way into reporter Michael Finney's regular consumer feature, "7 on Your Side."

Marketing over journalism

NewsProNet stories are accompanied by market research indicating how appealing they are with high-spending demographic slices of the American television audience, demonstrating their usefulness for selling commercial airtime. In national random telephone surveys (called "Impact Tracker"), the company measures attitudes by sex, race and age. Mr. Shoer said stations particularly covet the eyeballs of females between 18 and 34.

Not all television journalists, though, are convinced of NewsProNet's worth. Despite its marketing prowess, and the ease with which stations can "localize" the material, most stories are generic and have little direct effect on the cities and towns stations cover.

"The problem arises when local stations have an under-supply of reporters and photographers to fill the amount of local news time to produce," said Jill Geisler, a former television news director in Milwaukee, who now teaches at the Poynter Institute, a organization in Florida that trains journalists. "Then they aren't supplementing a full menu of locally produced news with additional treats - they're infusing their local news diet with empty calories."

Craig Marrs, station manager and vice president at the independent San Francisco station KRON Channel 4, said he once used NewsProNet, "but we dropped the relationship finding the stories not that useful to our agenda."

Ed Chapuis, news director at KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland, said he uses another outside service, Consumer Reports, which is clearly identified each time it airs. If a news syndicate has a good reputation with the audience, he said, why not give credit where credit is due?

A sketchy story

One problem with running syndicated stories is that sometimes they're not worth taking credit for.

Mr. Sanders, the NBC 11 vice president, said he almost always supplements NewsProNet pieces with staff reporting.

"We don't just run them as is," Mr. Sanders said. "We make a call and verify it. And when we do that, that lifts a lot of the burden of attribution off our shoulders, does it not?"

But Grade the News' periodic sampling of local television news broadcasts turned up at least three NewsProNet stories. NBC 11 appears merely to have rearranged and aired them, using no local sources or information that couldn't be found in NewsProNet stories on other stations' Web sites. Mr. Sanders said that if he found out that happened he would "put a stop to it."

The case of the secret credit bureau may have been a winner in terms of attracting viewers because the claims were so shocking. But its sensational bent led to some exaggerations:

  • Innovis, the so-called "secret" company, actually has a Web site and toll-free numbers.

  • While Innovis does sell information to firms trying to target junk mail offers to good credit risks, it doesn't provide credit information to lenders, as the producers implied by interviewing a car buyer.

  • Innovis actually has a better track record for accuracy than the competition. The Houston-based company has only two complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau of Houston in the last three years; the ostensibly honest Equifax got 333 complaints in its hometown, Atlanta.

Mr. Hicks repeatedly conveyed the impression that the story was reported by NBC 11. The only pronoun he used was "we": "we have found the number to call . and we've put that number on our Web site, NBC11.com."

None of the three on-camera sources was identified by location. A search of the Internet revealed that one, a financial consultant, lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. A second, a spokeswoman for "the Better Business Bureau," actually works for that organization's Houston franchise. That source, Deana Wade, said in a telephone interview that she was quoted out of context when she said Innovis had had problems with accuracy.

"I can't say that they're a bad company," Ms. Wade said. "All credit bureaus have the same problem that Innovis has had with incorrect information. This is why they have procedures to dispute and correct it."

A third source, Ruth Odom, couldn't easily be traced because she was identified only as "in the market for a car."

'Slice and dice' journalism

Since the story ran on NBC 11 in January, it has appeared in at least half a dozen newscasts across the country in nearly identical incarnations. The only thing sure to be unique is the local reporter's voice and face.

Contacted a few months later about his role in the investigation, Mr. Hicks, who has since left NBC 11, said he had only a "vague recollection" of the story.

One of the sources, Kristy Welsh, an Arizona author and consultant, said a scruffy-looking cameraman asked her pre-printed questions. Her impression was that NewsProNet offered the material to local news stations, which "slice and dice it and their people pretend to be asking the questions."

While many stations that subscribe to NewsProNet say they use the material to complement their own reporting, others take obvious liberties with the material.

WCNC in Charlotte, N.C., headlined its lightly rewritten Internet version of the Innovis story, "Secret credit report? 6NEWS investigates."

A Fox affiliate in Nebraska, KPTM, wrote that one woman in the Innovis story told her story to that station, even though those quotes also appeared in other NewsProNet stories.

And an Internet story by a reporter at WMAQ, the NBC station in Chicago, did the same thing -- making it seem as if car shopper Ruth Odom was talking with the station's own reporter.

A simple Internet search shows television stations across the country aired the same stories, including identical quotes.

For example, on Feb. 22, NBC 11 reporter Jonas Tichenor said on the air: "Exotic vacations, fancy cars, jazzy jewels — there are lots of things we'd like other people to buy for us. So go ahead, set up a fund, someone's bound to kick in the cash. People are collecting thousands of dollars through so-called cyber begging Web sites. Think of it as panhandling gone high-tech."

On April 4, Clark Howard, the "consumer advisor" at WSB-TV in Atlanta, posted this to the Internet under his byline: "People are collecting thousands of dollars through so-called cyber begging Web sites to finance such luxuries as exotic vacations, fancy cars and jazzy jewels. Panhandling has gone high-tech." 

Ethical questions 

Some television journalists, including high-ranking network executives, say newspaper rules about crediting news services and attributing sources don't apply to them. Television is inherently collaborative and the format is compressed, they say, so those details are less important than in print.

"When you see any of the networks - NBC, CBS, ABC, all of them - it is not uncommon for a network report to be primarily stuff shot by the affiliates, and the reporter from the network to voice over the material," said Steve Schwaid, vice president of news programming for the NBC Television Stations Division, overseeing 14 NBC and 11 Telemundo stations. His division has a group contract with NewsProNet.

He added: "This practice has been going on for years."

NewsProNet prefers to stay behind the scenes, saying it's acting like the Associated Press or any other wire service or video syndicate.

But the Associated Press is baffled by this secretiveness. "I cannot recall any instance of where someone would say they didn't want to be credited in any form or fashion," said Jack Stokes, an AP spokesman in New York.

The practice of taking credit for outsourced stories on the local news has drawn sharp criticism from peers, including competitors who say it erodes the credibility of television news in general.

"We don't take some kind of pre-packaged piece of investigative reporting and slap a reporter's name on the top of it," said Lori Waldon, managing editor at KPIX, the CBS station in San Francisco. "When it comes to investigative stories, our own reporters do their own investigation. To just take a script verbatim and re-voice it, I think, is unethical."

This year, newspaper credibility is reeling from revelations that New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and other high-profile journalists misrepresented others' work as their own. Public trust in the news media has been falling for more than a decade. A May USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that only 36% of Americans believe news organizations "get the facts straight."

So critics understandably wince at the mass copying when they see transcripts of these stories - with the television reporter's name at the top, which strongly suggest authorship - in which whole passages appear to be appropriated from some other source.

"The problem is misrepresentation and a form of deception," said Bob Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. "The stations should be honest with the viewers about the source of this material. They shouldn't claim it as their own work if it is not.

"Relationships, whether it's two people, a family, or journalists as they relate to their audience, are a matter of trust, and trust is built on honesty," Mr. Steele added. "Television stations that do that are being dishonest with their viewers, and that erodes relationships."

 

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