March 18, 2004 — Seventeen journalism organizations — representing more than 25,000 journalists — today joined the Association of Health Care Journalists in asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to stop using video news releases that have the appearance of authentic news reports. AHCJ President Andrew Holtz made the request in a telephone call to HHS spokesman William Pierce on Tuesday.
On Monday the New York Times reported that the Bush administration paid people to pose as journalists praising the benefits of the new Medicare law, including expanded coverage of prescription medicines.
In a joint statement, the groups said:
We ask that public agencies stop producing videos that imitate television news stories or use announcers who identify themselves as reporters. Viewers expect a reporter to be a journalist employed by a news organization. In this case, the so-called reporter was working for a public relations firm hired by a government agency. We find that misidentification unacceptable.
The groups called on all news organizations to preserve their journalistic independence by avoiding the use of such video news releases and warned the public to question the integrity of any such message.
HHS spokesman Pierce told the Association of Health Care Journalists that the agency sees no distinction between a video news release and a printed news release. Even though the videos about changes to Medicare were edited and produced to look like news reports, he said the videos were meant to simply suggest how television stations might report the Medicare story and that the agency had “no expectation” the video news releases would air in full.
AHCJ president Andrew Holtz, an independent journalist in Portland, Oregon, said: “I called HHS spokesman Bill Pierce Tuesday and asked him to help put an end to video news releases that may mislead viewers. This administration may not be the first to use them, but it should be the last. Government officials have a duty to communicate to the public, but they should speak for themselves and not hide behind a paid announcer who is falsely identified as a ‘reporter.’ ”
Leaders of other journalism organizations voiced similar sentiments. Deborah Blum, president of the National Association of Science Writers, said: “The National Association of Science Writers objects to the use of fake reporters and fake interviews in video news releases by the federal government or any other agency. We have 3,000 members who believe in honest communication of science and medicine and all of us believe that such deceptive practices cheat the very people who most need information provided with integrity.”
Dan Fagin, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, noted: “We’ve seen a disturbing trend recently of public agencies closing off access to documents and other important information. Now that the government is disguising public-relations messages as phony news reports, the public will be even more in the dark. A healthy democracy needs open government and credible information.”
And, Ernest R. Sotomayor, president of UNITY, an alliance of the four major organizations of journalists of color, said: “It is a dishonest practice that erodes already-waning public trust of our government and damages our ability to operate effectively.”
The groups that joined in this statement are:
- Association of Health Care Journalists
- Association of Hispanic Journalists
- Society of Environmental Journalists
- National Association of Science Writers
- Society of Professional Journalists
- Religion Newswriters Association
- National Conference of Editorial Writers
- National Society of Newspaper Columnists
- Native American Journalists Association
- Criminal Justice Journalists
- Online News Association
- American Society of Journalists and Authors
- Society of American Business Editors and Writers
- American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors
- American Society of Business Publication Editors
- National Press Foundation
- Journalism and Women Symposium
- UNITY, an alliance of the four major organizations of journalists of color
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Andrew S. Holtz, AHCJ President
Phone: (503) 292-1699
Fax: (561) 828-7938
Melinda Voss, MPH
AHCJ Executive Director
206 Church St. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455-0418
Phone: (612) 624-8877
Fax: (612) 626-8251