Non-partisanship and other illusions

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Inaccuracy is the worst offense journalists can commit. False or misleading information can cause people to make bad choices, such as which candidate to vote for, or what public policies to oppose or support. But information no matter how flawed has the bad habit of taking root in the public mind once it’s disseminated through the media, and once there it’s difficult to remove or even correct.

By subtracting rather than adding to the sum of human knowledge, inaccuracy is among the most pernicious of offenses against the public sphere — that area in social life where men and women can come together to discuss issues relevant to their lives, and where democracy has a chance to flourish.

The news media are indispensable for their presumed capacity to provide accurate, timely, and relevant information as necessary inputs in making informed decision-making real rather than an unrealized ideal. The disinformation and falsehoods that are among the many forms inaccuracy can take are especially harmful in societies where the majority are endowed with the right and duty to make decisions — i.e., in democracies, or in those places where there’s some pretense at popular decision-making, such as the Philippines.

We need not look far for examples. The fate of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and of peace in those areas in Mindanao affected by the fighting between MILF and government forces hangs in the balance today because of, among other reasons, the partisan and bias-driven disinformation the news media spread in the weeks following the Jan. 25 firefight in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

Inaccuracy can directly affect the lives of individuals, entire families, and even communities. Not providing context — part of the responsibility of truth-telling — is bad enough. But such egregious lapses as getting the facts wrong are even worse.

Some media organizations do acknowledge their mistakes, but compound the original error when they issue a non-apology disguised as an apology. Reporting that one’s daughter has been executed when she hasn’t been not only “aggravates” a mother and the rest of her family. Every human being worthy of the name — some “journalists” are obviously not in that category — should be able to understand that it absolutely devastates them, and that, therefore, getting it right rather than presuming to predict what’s going to happen and passing that off as fact violates the fundamental journalistic duties of humaneness and truth-telling. Apology or non-apology, such deliberate errors are unforgivable.

But we’ve all heard the argument that the news media are under the pressure of deadlines. God knows editors and even reporters on the beat have said that often enough. In the same breath they also accuse critics of not knowing, not understanding, or not appreciating the news process.

Speed has always been the enemy of accuracy, but being accurate has become even more complicated in the old media (print and broadcasting) by the added pressure of the Internet, and the public’s expectations that newspaper, radio and television news will be as quick — although, as surveys of newspaper readership have uniformly found, readers also expect accuracy as well as speed.

What then should be the priority? An inaccurate report serves no purpose other than confusion — although sometimes that seems to be exactly the point: newspapers do have an agenda, no matter their claim to non-partisanship and objectivity. Communication scholars have also argued, with reason, that the main function of the corporate media is to prevent change through thought-control.

In the Philippines as in much of the West, the media agenda is driven by the political and economic interests that control the corporate media, and no one should be under the illusion that a big media organization publishes a paper or goes on the air daily for the public good. That’s at most secondary; providing people their view of society and the world in behalf of defending and furthering their interests is their primary aim. They don’t exist in a vacuum, but in a social space dominated by political, economic and ideological interests. Most journalists will of course declare that no one tells them what to write. That may be true, but only in those cases when they have so internalized the views of their bosses that they don’t have to be told.

No one is, or can afford to be, non-partisan in this age. The media certainly are not. But it’s not partisanship by itself that’s the issue, but what the partisanship is for. If it’s to keep people badly informed or uninformed so they won’t be critical of a policy or a government official’s actions, it’s condemnable, and so is inaccuracy for the sake of selling more newspaper copies — or a combination of both.

Partisanship that’s supported by verifiable facts to which journalists should have a fundamental loyalty is something else. Partisanship for the sake of empowering people so they can understand the world and change it is even better, quite simply because journalism, like science, religion and art, is something human beings have developed precisely for that purpose. To what end does journalism exist? It’s certainly not to enrich anyone, or to provide journalists an Olympian venue from where, inflated egos and all, they presume superiority over mere mortals.

That no one is really non-partisan doesn’t mean that the facts should be made to yield to one’s views. Responsible journalists have learned that it’s the process of getting the facts that should be non-partisan even if they themselves are not. That means getting the facts right first, and putting them in context.

Unlike certain learned columnists, most communication students are familiar with what the communication scholar Denis McQuail says about the power of the media. The media can inform. They can also confer status and legitimacy. Even more crucial to human affairs is that they can advance change — or prevent, delay, or deter it. Both here and across a planet where control over information is in the hands of a handful of giant media corporations, preventing change is what the corporate media are about. Criticism of media performance is not only a right; it is also a public duty in these circumstances.

But some editors and not a few of their reporters and errand boys will tell the public that how they frame and present the news should not be the concern of mere media consumers. Instead the public should be passive and trust their judgment, no matter how fatally flawed it may be.

The assumption is that they’ve reached their exalted posts because of their skills and knowledge, in contrast to the media illiterate public. It’s a strange argument in the age of media interactivity, when citizen capacity not only to monitor and criticize the media, and even to themselves provide information and analysis, have been correctly identified as democratic imperatives. It is also an arrogant and dangerous presumption in an age in which much of the information about the world is media-mediated.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
May 14, 2015

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