by Wendy Priesnitz
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
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
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 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
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.
The Media Foundation
Center for Media & Democracy
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
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.