Local TV stations air Amazon PR piece on worker safety as if it were a real news story

Key Points
  • Several local TV news stations are running a segment produced by Amazon touting its warehouse working conditions. 
  • The segment comes as Amazon faces mounting concerns from warehouse workers across the country who say the company hasn't done enough to keep them safe during the pandemic.
  • An Amazon spokesperson said this type of story, often referred to as a video news release, isn't unique to the company. 
  • Video news releases have been a ethical problem for local TV news stations for ages, since the outlets rarely disclose that the segments weren't independently recorded.
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Local news stations are running a segment produced by Amazon touting its efforts to keep warehouse employees safe from the coronavirus.

The segment includes pre-recorded footage of its fulfillment centers, interviews with workers and a prewritten script for anchors to read on air, according to an Amazon release. It promises to give outlets a "first look" at how the company is keeping "its associates healthy and safe and still able to keep packages flowing." 

The testimonials included in the package differ greatly from the conditions described by Amazon warehouse employees during the pandemic. Since March, tensions have been growing between Amazon and workers at its facilities across the country, as the number of positive cases and deaths from the coronavirus continues to rise. Amazon has previously said it's gone to "great lengths" to keep workers safe, but workers continue to say the company hasn't done enough.

It's unclear how many television stations ran the segment. At least two stations promoted the segment on Twitter, while other TV reporters on Twitter called out Amazon for sending them the pitch.

link to tweet

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, criticized Amazon on Twitter, referring to the segment as "propaganda" and calling on the company to provide sick leave to warehouse employees, which garnered a response from Amazon's public policy account.

link to tweet

An Amazon spokesperson disputed claims that the segments were crafted as an attempt to reframe the story about its warehouse working conditions.

"We welcome reporters into our buildings and it's misleading to suggest otherwise," the spokesperson said in a statement. "This video was created to share an inside look into the health and safety measures we've rolled into our buildings and was intended for reporters who for a variety of reasons weren't able to come tour one of our sites themselves."

Company-produced segments such as these, often referred to as video news releases, aren't a new phenomenon and they aren't unique to Amazon.

News outlets are often provided video news releases by companies, PR firms and advertising agencies to aid with the reporting process or to run the content as a segment on its own. The practice has been criticized because it may not be clear to viewers that the segment was produced by a company. For example, in the Amazon segment this week, some local anchors credited the producer of the piece without disclosing he works for Amazon.

The spokesperson said Amazon was transparent that the material was coming from the company. The video was not promotional material and no one who participated in the video was paid, the spokesperson added. 

A.J. Bayatpour, a reporter with Madison, Wisconsin's WKOW, told CNBC that Amazon pitched the story to the outlet last week, but WKOW declined to run the segment. While the outlet has received video news releases before, Bayatpour said the Amazon segment stood out because it included a script, "all the way down to the anchor toss." 

"If it was just b-roll, it would be similar to the video news releases we've seen before," Bayatpour said in an interview. "But my news directors made clear that this is not something that we should run."

What it's like inside an Amazon warehouse during the Covid-19 pandemic