Journalism in troubled times

Should the media report everything government officials do and say for the sake of that elusive concept called “objectivity”? Philippine practice suggests that that’s what most journalists assume — and that, no matter how erroneous, outrageous or potentially harmful the statements and actions of those sources may be, their responsibility ends with accurately quoting them.

It’s a question that has never been raised except in these troubled times. Targeted for, and succumbing to manipulation by various political forces aware of its power, the press is in danger of losing the trust and respect of the media audience that’s crucial to its survival and capacity to provide the information democratic discourse can’t do without. In the age of “fake news,” religiously reporting the “alternative facts” of the powerful detracts from rather than contributes to the duty of providing the media audience the information it needs to understand events and public issues.

Only in a constitutional regime of press and media freedom is the question relevant. During the Ferdinand Marcos kleptocracy, the “partner in governance” the controlled press had been forced to become had no choice. It could neither ignore reporting what the government wanted the public to read, hear and watch, nor be critical of what it was really up to — if indeed the press even knew about it, access to information being limited only to that which validated the dictatorship’s portrait of itself as God’s gift to the Filipino people.

The question of whether it is at all necessary for the press to report everything those in power said or did wasn’t raised then. But neither was it raised during the succeeding Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, or even Macapagal-Arroyo, and Aquino III regimes.

It wasn’t because those administrations were not aware of the need to manage the information about themselves that they wanted the citizenry to hear. Each had its own way of doing exactly that, whether it was the filing of libel suits against columnists, reporters and editors as Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s husband did, Fidel Ramos’ berating reporters and inviting columnists to breakfast, Joseph Estrada’s advertising boycott against his most hated broadsheet, or Benigno Aquino’s III’s chastising journalists for supposedly being inaccurate and focusing on his love life.

But there was one major difference between those regimes and the present one. Not one of those presidents — not even Joseph Estrada — came close to the outrageousness, profanities, blatant falsehoods and sheer lack of civility of current President Rodrigo Duterte’s declarations, harangues and diatribes.

Last week, for example, Mr. Duterte told “istambay” ( loose translation: loiterers and idlers) to be on the lookout for bishops and to rob and kill them, which was once more dismissed as just another joke by his coterie of apologists and trolls in government and social media. As if that were not enough, he went on to declare that rape is “part of the territory” of being Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), whom he referred to as “slaves.”

What Mr. Duterte’s flunkies said was a joke may not be so interpreted by others, and by inciting people to violence, qualifies as hate speech. That and his other “jokes,” such as his tirade against the Commission on Audit (CoA) which he ended with the suggestion to “kidnap and torture” CoA auditors, contribute nothing to, and in fact detract from, public understanding of the imperative of government accountability and even his own declared fight against corruption.

On the other hand, his rape-as-part-of-the-territory statement is likely to be interpreted as a license for overseas employers to abuse their Filipina OFWs, because of its implication that, since that’s the way things are, no one — not the Philippine government — is likely to do anything about it.

Despite their obvious irrationality and potential harm, Mr. Duterte’s rants, insults, threats and profanities against anyone and any group that’s critical of him and his regime are nevertheless religiously reported by the news media — much of which he has also threatened and even tried to silence through the use of state power.

The press similarly reported his telling an audience of businessmen last week that the reason why he is “testing” the limits of civility is because critics have been “maligning” him since the 2016 campaign, apparently referring to reports that he at least approved of the Davao Death Squad if he did not organize and fund it, as well as to questions some journalists raised about his health.

While proclaiming for all the world to hear that rape is “part of the territory” for OFWs, he has obviously never understood that being criticized and held to account for their statements, acts and policies are necessarily part of the territory for candidates for political office, which he was in 2016, and for government officials, especially presidents of this unfortunate Republic, such as he has been since July that year.

All these and more have made the question of what purpose reporting such patently harmful, debased and debasing, and totally senseless diatribes against the church, priests and bishops, women, the press, government functionaries who are just doing their mandated jobs, human rights defenders, opposition senators, and even the Vice President of the Republic serves other than Mr. Duterte’s and his accomplices’ campaign to drive public discourse, this country, its culture, and its people to further ruin.

There is a journalistic precept that demands of journalists the exercise of the ethical responsibility of minimizing harm in the course of their reporting, or commenting on and interpreting the news. It would seem that they need to be reminded of that principle today.

But totally ignoring Mr. Duterte’s and his lackeys’ outrageous, erroneous and misleading rants, invectives and accusations for the sake of minimizing harm would deny the public its right to being informed not only of what those to whom they have delegated their sovereign powers are thinking and saying, but also of what kind of creatures these are and whether they deserve their continuing support.

It’s a dilemma that needs to be resolved not only because of Mr. Duterte’s debasement of public discourse but also because of the impact on the lives and safety of the groups and individuals at the receiving end of his threats and incitements to violence.

The only way out of the problem is for journalists to always keep in mind the fundamental imperative of providing a background and a history to everything they report. What’s needed is “Accountability Journalism”: journalism focused on investigative reporting, and always aware of the consequences for good or for harm of reporting, comment and analysis — which makes holding the powerful to account for what they say and do the primary journalistic responsibility, and which takes the greatest care to be sure of the accuracy of its facts as well as the validity of its interpretation of their meaning. It’s journalism not only for these troubled times but for all times.

Rather than simply noting that Mr. Duterte’s declaration that rape is part of OFW territory is likely to “rile women’s groups,” the journalist reporting it could have also pointed out its implications on the lives of the thousands of Filipinas working abroad and on their families in the Philippines.

Instead of just recalling that Mr. Duterte has been attacking the Catholic Church, its bishops and religion itself, the reporter on the scene could have also warned the public that his “rob and kill bishops” statement could be taken literally by the legions of thugs and killers in and out of the government of this violence-ruled land.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating: for journalism to be truly responsible, relevant and capable of engaging its audience, it must provide not only the news but also its meaning. Context is still everything.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
Jan. 20, 2019

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