The FCC issued 42 Letters of Inquiry to 77 broadcast licensees to determine whether or not the sources of video news releases (VNRs) were properly disclosed during newscasts.
The issue of not disclosing the source of video material is central to the government’s involvement in the VNR issue because FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from airing material without disclosing they have received compensation in exchange for broadcasting material — a form of payola. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and others have argued that VNR footage in and of itself has value, so airing it without disclosing its source may violate sponsorship identification laws.
In a statement released with the announcement of the probe, Adelstein said he was pleased the commission was looking into the matter and promised to “prosecute any violations to the full extent of the law.”
In April, the commission released a public notice reminding the media of its responsibilities regarding identifying the source of VNR footage in reports. Earlier in the month, the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, WI, -based media watchdog group, issued a multimedia report documenting video from 36 VNRs that made its way into newscasts. The report identified 77 stations that used what it called “fake news.”
If the commission determines after the investigation that a licensee has violated sponsorship identification rules, the FCC may impose monetary fines of up to $32,500 per violation and initiate license revocation proceedings against licensees. Section 507 of the Communications Act establishes civil and criminal penalties for violation of disclosure requirements with the possibility of a fine of up to $10,000 and as much as a year of imprisonment.