An old-timer journalist once told me that the reason he went into journalism and education: They are the two occupations that can immediately positively influence and enlighten a people. Education is one of the most disruptive methods for breaking the cycle of poverty. It provides opportunity, it provides enlightenment, and it helps create a future for so many. Journalism, while may not be as capable of molding young minds and providing opportunities, is disruptive as well. It not only helps shape public discourse, it actually regulates and initiates discourse by laying the initial foundation for discussion. Media provides the space in which iniquities are uncovered and needs of a people are safeguarded. Thus, journalism, in any form, is a public trust. It provides a private counterpoint, a check and balance, to publicly elected officials. I would argue that Philippine media in general, in many instances, has failed to live up to those responsibilities. Instead of educating and informing, they have reduced public discourse to the lowest common denominator; playing on the edge of propaganda and even outright misrepresenting stories for the sole purpose of manipulating public sentiment. Media ethics have gone out the window in favor of rabble-rousing and the pursuit of the almighty sensational story. While we constantly decry the pervading sense impunity in government, what of the impunity of the media? There was once an old joke in the 60s that if we wanted to clean out the country, we should stick the enema hose in the National Press Club. That was in the 1960s, before Martial Law and the shuttering of independent media by a repressive government. Thankfully, with the end of Martial Law, media was rightfully given its freedom back; a freedom they should maintain. Apolinario Mabini once argued that "Freedom is the right to do good, not evil." I wonder.
Journalists shape and inform public opinion, that much we can all agree upon. Occasionally, though they are the tail (tale?) that wags the dog. Public opinion is basically represented by the reactions of members in the media. This encompasses all forms of media; New and Old. Essentially they are basically the same, just different ways of sharing information and opinion. There is now this on-going debate concerning the difference between a citizen blogger and a journalist, and to what extent bloggers should adhere to journalist code of ethics and responsibilities. I would argue that in another milieu there is a substantial difference between the two vocations; much like how there is a significant difference between a historian and someone who writes about history. There is a rigorous methodology that separates the two; just like there should be a distinction between a ‘professional journalist’ and a ‘citizen journalist’ based on an expected fundamental quality of research and storytelling that is involved. However, in our situation we have had a blurring between the two precisely because our public media has been so remiss in following their own internal code of conduct and ethics. And in some ways our ‘informal’ journalists are even more respectable.
The last year has provided many examples of the fallibility and impunity of media when manufacturing public discourse. Jaime Salazar, over at Pro-Pinoy, provided a cogent critique of media’s role in turning the CCP issue into an almost stupefyingly simplistic shouting match:
"It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.)”
Media created, then fanned, the angst and anger through polemic, almost yellow journalism, framing techniques. What was an opportunity to actively engage and discuss the important role of government in supporting art became a bitch and moan session between extremist positions; positions that media actively promoted and lapped up. Going back to the idea of journalists as educators and illuminators, nothing came other than an opportunity to enrage Filipinos and increase viewership. There was a real chance to bring art and its importance front and center in public consciousness; that was lost amid a wave of pervasive superficiality. In this instance, linking it to the RH Bill (another example of media manipulation and a lost opportunity to engage, enlighten, and educate) heightened tensions and gave birth to a volatile situation.
If nothing else, the RH Bill is another example of sensationalizing a story by reducing it to its most titillating components. We have seen the media at large almost completely fixate on condoms and sex (all issues that will wind up the Church), to the almost laughable exclusion of any of the other physical and cognitive developmental considerations. The upshot is a complete lobotomizing of public discourse. The anti-RH crew shouts decaying moral values and other gibberish, the pro-RH shouts anti-Church polemics. In the end, there’s just a bunch of shouting with little engagement and additional understanding.
It is quite alright, and expected, for dyed-in-the-wool true believers to argue rhetorical points and hurl polemics. But to watch the broadsheets and television media to get into the act is damaging and, in a way, saddening. Instead of helping discover and explore the underlying issues, they get in on the act. And yes, I actually do support journalists, in their capacity as commenters and columnists, to argue a point and take a stand with integrity; meaning still maintaining a rigorous ethical grounding. But, let us not forget, there is a difference between column writing and reporting. Hence, the Editorial/Opinion page in a newspaper is separate from the rest of the newspaper. Bias will always be inherent in reportage; politics and political leanings will always infiltrate. The key is how rigorous the journalist is in trying to present a balanced (as in all sides) perspective on the stories of the day. Can we honestly say that is the case?
One of the most obvious examples is the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation ‘scandal’ that recently erupted. That is clearly a situation of ‘wag the dog’ reporting. It was a story created by one or two journalists; a journalist with a known bias, who presently a highly biased view of the story. Key contextual elements were excised in favor of a pre-determined narrative. The PDBF story was framed as the traditional plucky underdog fighting the corrupt and unfair system who prevail against all odds. Ignored was the actual story behind their success; the fact that they had received almost Php60M over the last nine years; the fact that many of them had been active for almost eighteen years; or the fact that their performance came in ‘small boat’ competitions comprised of beginners. Forgotten in the story was the fact that the PDBF members purposefully chose to severe their ties with the PCS/PCO because their monthly training stipends were going to be reduced. Even in the case of Jeff Tamayo, his impolitic ‘ampao’ statement was referring to the muscles of old athletes. Any athlete with a modicum of honestly will admit that as they age their physical capabilities diminish. The word ‘ampao’ was taken out of context and purposefully used to discredit and denigrate. All of those details were eschewed in favor of more rabble-rousing and intellectual bankrupt reporting. Now the Senate is throwing in their two-cents to score political brownie points with their constituencies, with shrill bias along for the ride. Discourse continues to backslide.
What I remain curious about is where were the Senate Hearings and media outrage when Efren Penaflorida was named CNN Hero of the Year. Obviously, his advocacy would not exist, or at least would not be as needed as much, if education was functioning properly in this country. Indeed, that is far more damaging to the national interests than kayak and canoeing. Yet, this difference is the very point. Education, while outrageous on an intellectual level, does not pander to the mob mentality that is so prevalent in the Philippines. It is easy to reframe the PDBF story and accuse the system of being corrupt; it is even quite easy when there are readily available soundbites to be manipulated. But taking on the education system at large? It is much easier to praise and honor Penaflorida (as he should be, by the way), pat our collective selves on the back for producing such a brilliant and accomplished man, and go on our merry way ignoring the underlying situation.
The case of the PDBF also becomes an instance of a worrying trend in Philippine media: A lack of investigative journalism on the part of various media outlets. The PDBF story was broken by ABS-CBN, almost immediately other journalists and media members jumped on the existing story. The did not do any new research, they did not try and dig into the story to reframe it or offer alternative views. Instead they just ran with the pre-existing narrative and tried their damnedest to raise the stakes. Passions became inflamed and the media not only fed on it, they fed it. The qualities of investigative reportage seem to be almost non-existent; except within a few small bastions of journalism (PCIJ for example). Other than that, too often major stories across the board very rarely deviate from one another. A reader can check GMA News, ABS-CBN, Inquirer, and the Philippine Star and invariably major stories, except with subtle differences in details and style, the framing and storytelling narratives are similar. Though, there are certain exceptions, such as rags like The Daily Tribune, but too often those operate more as a propaganda mouthpieces than anything else. And should be treated as such. Too often a ‘middle ground,’ an attempt to balance extremes and views is absent. There is an almost worrisome homogeneous, monolithic thinking that at times seems to pervade media in the Philippines.
I fear that media may reflect society. That we are a nation that is most comfortable with superficiality and base polemics; in capable, unwilling, or possibly even unable to dig deeper into stories. Maybe we do need stories spoon fed to us in their simplest and easily digestible forms. That may well be true (though I do not think so); but that also acts as a cop-out for journalists and media members who are in a position to do something about it. That is akin to giving a pass to corrupt politicians because there is corruption extant in civil society. This is a case of responsibility weighs heavily on the shoulders of those who seek it. Much like men and women who seek public officer or government service, becoming a journalist carries its own public responsibilities that must be met. Failure to meet those responsibilities should not reflect on society at large; it should reflect on the journalist and his organization.
Another old journalist once told me that media has to clean itself, before it can begin exhorting society and government to do the same. There is always the understanding that when journalists play in the muddy waters of politics, they will get a little dirty along the way as well. But there is a big difference between incidental politicking and active ‘envelopmental’ journalism. Though we would be remiss in pointing out that government and some politicians, for all their protestations to the contrary, do actively try and influence the media. Most visibly in our last regime through payoffs and plum positions in certain agencies and GOCCs for certain journalists and their families. Media can also be influenced through innuendos and not so subtly veiled threats; as we know the Philippines is the most deadly nation in the world for journalists; even ignoring the Maguindanao Massacre. There is a difference between censorship through threats of bodily harm and self-censorship as in the case of taking bribes and actively manipulating stories.
Recently, ABS-CBN was nominated for an International Emmy for their coverage of the Manila hostage crisis. They took this as a vindication of their coverage last August. While no one should blame media for that tragedy, the media should also stop maintaining that they could not have conducted themselves more appropriately. At the time, we cited the BBC’s rigorous ethical guidelines for handling hijacking, kidnapping, hostage-taking and siege situations; actions on the ground and over the air of many media practitioners clearly violated those guidelines. Yet, at the time and still today, the Philippine media will maintain that they did nothing wrong. That sort of intractable position-taking actually damages the ability of media to properly cover these types of situations in the future. And media should be actively trying to see how they can better their own reporting for the benefit of the country. They are ‘trusted news sources’ after all.
Trust and responsibility are integral parts of the vocation of a journalist. They are, in some ways, the public intellectuals of the twenty-first century and, as a result, are burdened with great public responsibilities. Where writers like Jose Rizal in the 19th century had to resort to essays and novels to shine a light on the frailties of their society, we have a free and empowered press to perform the same role. Even then, men like Rizal, Plaridel, Lopez Jaena et al, actively opened and supported newspapers to get their stories out. Granted they were propaganda organs, but it speaks to the enduring power of the press and its ability in any century, with only changes in modes of communication, to shape public discourse and debate.
The press is a key line of defense in protecting public interests; they are empowered and trusted to do so. Journalism can bring down regimes and build them up as well. They can destroy men and build up heroes. Maybe in a sense, media does reflect society; maybe they do pander to the masses and play to the lowest common denominator. But, again, should that be what we expect of media practitioners? And more to the point, should that be what media practitioners expect of themselves. In the process of playing the ratings games and the drive for clicks and hits, media in the Philippines has lost some of its integrity. Physician heal thyself almost seems cliche at this point; but it seems to still hold true. That requires a sense of self-reflection, something as well I wonder if media is will to do. We saw, as in the case of Alfred Yuson and his plagiarism, media and culture almost instinctively circle the wagons to protect their own; public interest and responsibility quickly forgotten. And while GMA News did decline to renew Yuson’s contract, a quick comparison between that reaction and those of the press during the Manny Pangilinan and Justice Mariano del Castrillo plagiarism scandals show a marked difference in coverage and concern.
There are still great and amazing media practitioners out there; excellent analysts and journalists who stay true to their core beliefs, yet are not afraid to open up the discourse and objectively try and present all sides of the story. And even when bias seeps in, they should not be pilloried because of it. There should be an expectation that another media source is offering a slightly different view point. I will always have greater expectations for media practitioners; they have the tools and capacity to do so much good. It is why I admire ‘bloggers’ out there who hold themselves to high degrees of journalistic standards; even in excess of certain ‘journalists.’ They see that they are given an opportunity, and as a result have a responsibility, to uphold public trust and, in their own way, defend the Philippines.
What we should worry ourselves with is when the story becomes the journalist; when their thoughts and feelings and personal beliefs become the primary drivers behind a story; when the journalist creates the story, just because they want to. Maybe some journalists in the country do have too much in common with the political brethren. When journalists see their position, not as a public trust, but as a bully pulpit from which they can twist stories, exacerbate situations, tear down men and build up heroes all for personal reasons, they have begun to act with similar impunity. Politicians sometimes see their positions as theirs by ‘divine’ right to do with as they please, I wonder if some journalists feel the same way about their space. I wonder if they have forgotten the part about upholding standards and protecting the public trust.
Journalism is storytelling, it is a balancing act of various views and perspectives, and it always remains a public trust and an opportunity. That is both the difficulty and the beauty inherent in journalism; the way that tension is managed and a story is told ultimately illuminates the quality of the journalist; whether ‘citizen’ or ‘professional’ alike.