Media are part of the problem

That former TV broadcaster who’s running for senator under Sara Duterte’s Hugpong ng Pagbabago party isn’t alone in denying that the Duterte regime is a threat to press freedom.

There are other former and still practicing broadcast, print and online media people who have never quite understood that the most fundamental values in journalism are independence, accuracy, and truth-telling.

They’re not even running for any office, although some have been rewarded with government posts. But not only do they make it a point to say the same thing at every opportunity; they also support what the regime is doing to online news site Rappler, and approve of its threats against the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN network. They applaud Mr. Duterte’s harangues against, and his subalterns’ banning individual journalists from covering events in which he’s present. They ignore or are completely clueless about the killing of journalists, and the libel suits, threats, physical assaults, and other harassments against them.

Neither they nor the aspiring senator have earned the right to be named in polite society. Some deserve only the infamy they have gained through their corruption, mediocrity, and mendacity, while others remain in well-deserved obscurity despite their pandering to whatever regime is in power.

One has thankfully traded his newspaper column for a post as lobbyist for China in the regime he’s been worshipping. In-between lying about the Marcos martial law regime, another demonizes, incites violence against, and endangers not only activists and members of sectoral and people’s organizations, but also those authentic journalists who are not in the pay of either his own patroness or other interests.

But it is not only these frauds who’re responsible for much of the public’s failure to understand what’s happening today in this country as well as what happened in such dark periods of its history as the reign of the Marcos kleptocracy.

There is also an entire broadsheet whose pages are not only in daily violation of the ethical and professional standards of journalism; they are also repositories of the worst writing in recent press history.

It has a sister publication in another broadsheet that, while not as incompetent and as clumsily partisan, nevertheless also contributes to the spread of disinformation and ignorance by dutifully repeating and applauding everything government sources say as if they were all Bible-truth.

There are also at least three tabloids whose editors, through press releases obviously sourced from their military handlers, have endangered the lives of their betters in journalism by claiming that the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is “headed” by the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.

The media’s being part of the problem in developing the informed public vital to the democratization of Philippine society doesn’t end there. Much of print, broadcast and online reporting has also helped legitimize the regime’s “drug war” narrative.

By citing primarily, and often solely, official sources such as the police, Mr. Duterte’s spokespersons, and Mr. Duterte himself, many reporters have helped make acceptable the regime tale that those killed were only a few and had to be put down because they fought back (“nanlaban”).

Reporting the killings in the course of that war against the poor as just part of the daily toll of violence has also lulled much of the public into indifference, and allowed the killings to continue without much protest. But the humanitarian crisis that is developing because of the killing of breadwinners and the thousands of widows and orphans they’ve left behind remains unreported, except by a handful of practitioners who take their responsibilities seriously enough to risk harassment and hate speech from the regime and its online trolls.

The few reporters and editors who’ve given it a thought defend their practice by citing such news values as that of prominence, which measures newsworthiness in terms of the fame, notoriety, or social and political standing of those involved. In addition to reporting what the prominent are doing, it is also assumed that the views and claims of official sources, particularly presidents, generals, Cabinet secretaries and other State personages, take precedence over the stories of such unknowns as ordinary citizens even if they’re the ones whose fathers, husbands, sons, wives or daughters have been killed in, say, a police anti-drug operation.

The illusion of “objectivity” is also cited often to justify simply quoting what sources say. But even when sources other than the powerful are quoted, the absence of context and explanation often results in the dominance of the views of official sources.

It would seem that only the conventions of reporting are responsible for the legitimization of the regime version of events, and that the media have only unknowingly become instruments of public disinformation. But there is an additional factor involved that makes the media not only inadvertently but also deliberately complicit in the spread of false and misleading information.

That factor is the corruption that has long been a problem in Philippine media practice. In certain beats such as Congress, police and defense, some reporters’ being in the pay of the officials they cover is so well-established it is hardly remarked upon. Practitioner corruption is manifest in the selective presentation of his or her patrons’ views and claims as authoritative and beyond question, by, among other devices, quoting them extensively and citing contrary views perfunctorily and only at the end of news reports. In many instances, they don’t even write them but simply attach their bylines to the press releases churned out by the government disinformation system.

In addition are the political and business interests that in most media organizations take precedence over the public’s right to accurate and reliable information. The editorial policies of the two broadsheets earlier referred to, for example, make reporting favorably on government to the exclusion of critics mandatory for reporters, who have so internalized those policies they have become second nature.

A reexamination of the conventions of journalism is in order in these times, when the need for accurate information has never been more urgent. It is not enough — it has never been — for journalists to simply quote what this source or that said without analysis and explanation.

Journalists need to explain what the news means as well as report it. The more responsible sectors of the US press have emphasized this as equally necessary as fact-checking in combating false information. They don’t just report what politicians and government officials say; they put them in context and explain what they mean, and hold the powerful to account for the consequences of what they say and do on people’s lives.

Citing only official sources in reporting events and issues has to yield to accessing a multiplicity of sources to include those who’re credible and who have something of more value to say than the bureaucrats whose biases and lies should by now be so self-evident the press should either ignore them altogether or else point out their failings.

Equally important, the media advocacy, journalists’ groups and civil society formations should make the development of a media-literate public part of their programs. Those programs should make primary the need for public understanding of the political economy of the media as a crucial factor in the way they report and interpret events and issues.

As in the search for solutions to this country’s legions of problems, these efforts will take some time to bear fruit. Hopefully they will eventually help make much of the media part of the solution to the crisis of information instead of being part of the problem.

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

Published in Business World
Feb.7, 2019

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