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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VIEW FROM AMERICA: Fake Ads Ruin Credibility of CBS News




Can we trust what we see on CBS news broadcasts, even when reports are filmed live? Not necessarily; certainly not on New Year's Eve. Viewers who tuned into Dan Rather's live-from-Times-Square New Year's Eve broadcast saw the CBS logo prominently displayed on billboards over Times Square. A savvy advertising purchase? Not quite. As news reports later revealed, these billboards didn't actually exist - the CBS logo was inserted using technology that digitally superimposes an image into live video footage.


Called live video insertion, the technology is often used to place real-looking virtual billboards - paid for by actual sponsors - in the background of television sports coverage. CBS News, the first national news outlet to use this technology, has been doctoring images since the November launch of "The Early Show," plastering the CBS logo and promotional advertisements over New York City landmarks. Digitally altered images have also been used on the CBS newsmagazine "48 Hours."


Describing the technology to The New York Times, The Early Show's executive producer Steve Friedman gushed, "we haven't even scratched the surface of its uses yet." Friedman saw no ethical concerns with altering the appearance of neighborhoods in live news reports, saying, "It does not distort the content of the news."


Eric Shapiro, director of CBS Evening News and CBS News Special Events, agreed that this technology has not interfered with the integrity of the news. Discussing the fake billboards placed in Dan Rather's live New Year's broadcast, Shapiro told the Times that Rather did not know in advance about the insertion of virtual logos, though when he learned of it he did not protest.


Rather himself felt differently, telling The New York Times in the same issue that the use of this technology was "a mistake" that he regrets. "This is a new tool and we're responsible for how we use it. ... I'm not satisfied with how we met our ethical responsibility to viewers," Rather said. "There is no excuse for it."


The use of this technology carries troubling implications. A spokesperson for CBS told Free, a publication of the Freedom Forum, that the technology has been used only to advertise CBS' own programs and "there is no talk of using this for [paid] commercial content." The fact that the network, given the opportunity, did not rule out such use raises the disturbing specter of fake billboards for CBS sponsors appearing in the background of future news stories. CBS News president Andrew Heyward's comment to The New York Times - "I don't want to apologize for being aggressive in exploiting this"- was not reassuring.


In justifying the use of this technology in news programming, CBS executives display a limited understanding of broadcast journalism. The images shown to us in news broadcasts - especially live reports - are an integral part of the content of those broadcasts. "We're in the accuracy business; we're in the reality business," CBS' Heyward told The New York Times. But placing objects in a news scene that are not actually there cannot be reconciled with accurate journalism.


FAIR, or Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, is a U.S.-based media watchdog group. This comment originally appeared on their website at www.fair.org, and is reprinted with permission.