Creepy trend: Local TV buying canned news, broadcasting as their own

Conan O’Brien Breaks Some Actual News

A fascinating, and somewhat disturbing, story from the Washington Post yesterday, that Conan O’Brien, of all people, broke on his show a while back. Local TV news stations are buying pre-packaged “instant” news stories, with accompanying script and film footage, and simply reading them on the air as “new” news produced by the local station itself.

It’s akin to syndicating a column in local papers, but instead of each newspaper around the country carrying Maureen Dowd’s weekly column with her byline, they would hypothetically print the same column but each paper would sign it with a different local journalist in order to make it look original to that specific local paper. It would be like bloggers Chris in Paris, Markos Moulitsas, and Marcy Wheeler all actually being the same person: a retired cafeteria worker in Pensacola, Florida.

Here’s Conan’s compilation of numerous stations reporting on the same story, “Is it time for dogs to have a social network of their own?”:

Ingenius and Creepy

The Washington Post explains more:

The “salty” story was produced by an “affiliate service,” CNN Newsource, and syndicated to dozens of stations around the country. Stations not only get prepackaged footage from such services, but a script that introduces the footage, as well. Stations then “localize” the canned package by having one of their anchors read the one-size-fits-all copy.

Viewers typically have no idea that a seemingly local story has come from a centralized source in New York, Los Angeles or, in this case, Washington. The CNN Newsource story, for example, doesn’t mention CNN Newsource or CNN, its parent company. The reporter on the story simply signed off, “In Washington, I’m Karin Caifa.” (Caifa and CNN Newsource were also behind the widely played story about “social networking” for dogs via a Web site that connects pet owners.)

I’m really not sure what to think.  I’m fascinating by the ingenuity of it.  But at the same time, a bit creeped out by it.  Is it really fake news if it’s a real news story that’s simply been copied?  It might be considered plagiarism, but it’s not really “fake” news, it is real news.

Then is it akin to a kid copying a friend’s paper in college?  He got permission to copy it.  Yet that’s not a defense against plagiarism.  Though school is a bit different than the local news – at school you’re earning grades that supposedly show your relative merit.  If the local news were to try to win a local Emmy based on the fake story, that might pose similar problems.  Then again, in the public eye, all local stations are vying for eyeballs, for “relative merit.”  So isn’t the plagiarism of one station unfair as compared to its competitors (though perhaps all are buying the same pre-packaged stories)?

Is it a Financial Necessity in Today’s Market?

Another sympathy I have is that things have been quite tough for the media since the economy collapsed.  They’ve been tough for us.  A number of papers, and a number of blogs, have gone belly up.  And a lot more are on thin ice.  I don’t see this consolidation, or thinning out, of the media as a particularly good thing.  So anything that brings in more income, to CNN for example, means they have a better chance of hanging around to counter Fox’s lies and disinformation, and that’s a good thing.

Here’s another clip from Conan, this time about gay marriage, “Conan O’Brien may be about to push the envelope on late night television”:

What do you think? Does this amount to nothing more than a white lie? Is it a necessary evil in order for an independent media to survive?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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23 Responses to “Creepy trend: Local TV buying canned news, broadcasting as their own”

  1. Bob Parker says:

    This whole subject was brought up, and subject to criticism, at least 2-3 years ago. Theoretically, the FCC says that they are supposed to identify these “fake” local news stories as syndicated content, but it sounds like Big Media is yet again ignoring the rules and doing whatever it takes to make a buck.

    I’ve always said that the only winners in our elections these days is Big Media, because all that money raised by the politicians for their campaigns goes primarily to TV, radio and print media. This is yet another symptom of that disease.

  2. Jafafa Hots says:

    Most “news” is corporate press release. That holds true for print media too.

  3. Sphyg says:

    This is not a new trend.

  4. Tatts says:

    I worked for a CBS affiliate station in the ’70s (!) and they were using these syndication services then. The feeds would come down from the network at times when stations were playing locally syndicated programming (late afternoon) or overnight (before stations typically stayed on 24/7).

    You can assume that any story that is national (a social network for dogs) would be provided by these services. Local station just don’t have the resources.

    You should also know that large companies provide the same service–“news” stories about an issue (health, safety, pets, child rearing, etc.) that just happen to provide product placement (possibly subtle, possibly not) in the news story. That’s what PR departments do.

    This is not new.

  5. staticsky says:

    Like others have said, this is unfortunately a feature of local news that has been going on for decades. What is worse is that often local news will run segments that they received for free that were paid for by corporations. In 1989 I interviewed for a division of ABC News that produced these “Video News Releases.” Say a corporation like campbell’s soup wanted to show off their wears, they would pay for a story to be written the featured their product. The story could be about how fears of botulism are a thing of the past, and you’d then see footage from the campbell’s factory, and the narrator would say “with costly upgrades, such as done at this factory, your family’s safety is assured.”

    The video news release would be sent to every local station out there, with a narration and without (so the local news reporter could read the script as if it was locally produced). Whenever it was a slow day the local station would just put in that tape and the viewer would never know they were just watching an ad.

  6. Stephen - DE says:

    This why I don’t watch the local news. I call it Low Cal news.

  7. GermanProf says:

    If you think that’s bad, and it is, Google “Grant Rampy” and see what they did before prepackaging news items *without* a reporter. I honestly thought that he was a reporter for the local Los Angeles news station that I watched for years, until I was on a business trip in Omaha and saw him “locally” reporting there as well.

  8. Buford says:

    I woulda made my version of the second example special… “Late night television’s envelope is what Conan O’Brian might be pushing”.., or maybe, “Pushing is what Conan O’Brien might be doing to late night television’s envelope”.

  9. emjayay says:

    I believe the inside term for the helpful practical advice type stories they run is “don’t stick a fork in your eye” pieces. See also, Yahoo News.

  10. emjayay says:

    Local teevee news in what I assume is the biggest or close to it market with no doubt by far the most top reporters per square foot, NYC, is uniformly horrible. All the money seems to be spent on hair and makeup and outfits and lighting. Never before was anyone’s face and super glossy hair lit more intensely from more possible angles. Every sentence of every report, whether it is warning about half the city being drowned or a puppy in a well, is stated as if it is the most urgent and important and fascinating thing ever heard in the history of the planet. No normal human ever talks like that or for that matter has hair like that. When a local report is about something I happen to know a lot about because of first hand information and involvement, it is always half factually wrong and the rest misleading.
    Obviously a result of somewhat inexplicable but very real market forces. Well, inexplicable until you see all those people on the subway reading the equally stupid and sensationalist New York Post. Or the slightly better Daily News.
    It would be nice if the local PBS station could afford their own local news program, as long as it wasn’t as boring and risk averse as the national PBS news. Actually I think the format that has been perverted into the local news style was started on the San Francisco PBS station. During a long strike of both newspapers decades ago, they started a program witht the local reporters siting around a table and talking about what’s going on. I think this started the idea of two or three people on the air at the same time pretending to listen to each other and be chummy and chuckly about each others stuff, instead of one guy seriously intoning the reports. Except in the original version the interaction was real and the reports were serious. And the lighting was bad and the hair and outfit expenditure obviously nonexistent. And they weren’t paid big money for reading someone else’s writing.

  11. docdonn says:

    too bad… now it’s no longer true that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog …

  12. Dave Bright says:

    Speaking of the same phenomenon in newspapers… This American Life did a great story on exactly this topic. NPR wrote about it this past summer.

  13. HolyMoly says:

    The canned special interest stories are nothing new, but they don’t concern me much. What concerns me is the way in which the actual news is presented to us, in a way intended to tell us how to think about any given story. The news itself is “canned” too….like when you’re watching CNN or some other large network and you see commercials that aren’t selling ANYTHING, or at least nothing that your average viewer can buy. When GE buys millions of dollars worth of ad space, you’re only going to see war coverage from their angle. When BP buys ad space, you’ll hear stories that make the Tar Sands pipeline seem hunky dory. Etc., etc. Greenwald had put a story up a couple months ago about special interest segments that cast a positive light on such countries as Bahrain…and the segments are SPONSORED by those governments in question. Negative news stories on those particular governments are not aired in certain venues (such as CNN International).

    That’s all about the national networks, and I know this story is about local broadcasts, so I’m sorry about straying from the topic. At least with the local stations a portion of the show is dedicated to actual local events, and they don’t seem to have an agenda when reporting them…you can’t really put a spin on a house fire or 100-car pile-up on the freeway.

  14. AnitaMann says:

    This has been going on for a long time. One of the many reasons I have not watched local news in many years. What’s worse is when Monsanto, etc., produces their own news segments (amazing holiday decorating ideas for GMO tomatoes! etc.) There is a lot of that and viewers don’t know where it comes from.

  15. jomicur says:

    Nothing new here. Any reasonably alert viewer–here in Pittsburgh, say–has to know that a story about a two-headed kitten in Saskatchewan or a traffic accident in Wichita can’t have been locally produced.

  16. oh wow, no did not know.

  17. Don’t knock puppy videos… ;-) We post them sometimes as filler, but more often as a necessary break from the anger and depression of politics, lest the readers burn out.

  18. Ted in Dallas says:

    I’d say that 99.9% of the stuff that is reported as “news” isn’t actually news. Seriously, who thinks that a story about “social network for Dogs” is even news worthy AT ALL?

  19. nicho says:

    What someone needs to domis apply the same scrutiny tonthe “young, conservative columnists” that papers were bullied into hiring to avoid being called “liberal media.” Back when I used to read a lot of newspapers, I noticed that the “young, conservative columnist” in Boston was writing the same talking points as the ones in San Diego or Denver. They were using their own words, but the message and the talking points — even some of the phrases — were the same. In other words, they had a single source.

  20. caphillprof says:

    You’re not preserving independent local media if it’s filled with this crap.

  21. Jim Olson says:

    This has been going on for years. Those “human interest” or “shaggy dog” stories at the end of local news casts that have nothing to do with local news and are usually wholly irrelevant and stupid are never locally produced. It’s just filler because the local editors or producers think it attracts viewers if they tease a cute puppy story for 26 minutes to get you to stay through the whole news cast. Maybe, if they continued (or started) to do serious in-depth local news reporting so that their news cast didn’t suck, and their sets (and reporters!) didn’t look like they were designed by art-school dropouts from the 1980s, they wouldn’t have to buy canned shit.

  22. This has been going on for decades. Ya didn’t know?? If you’re careful enough, you will often see product placement in such “stories”.

  23. perljammer says:

    “It would be like bloggers Chris in Paris, Markos Moulitsas, and Marcy
    Wheeler all actually being the same person: a retired cafeteria worker
    in Pensacola, Florida.”

    Wait, what?? You mean they’re not??

    Seriously, though — you see the same phenomenon on newspaper sites, particularly those of small newspapers. Go to Google News and look at the stories for, say, a plane crash or the rescue of a stranded hiker. You will see multiple sites containing identical copy. Sometimes you will see credit given to a news service like AP or UPI; often you won’t.

    In the case of “Is it Time For Dogs To Have A Social Network of Their Own” … why does this appear on any NEWS show? Now, a story about social networks for CATS — that would be a scoop!

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