Moving forward, it is imperative for journalists and media workers to ensure that media repression and creative forms of censorship do not happen. Virtual pressers where questions are screened cannot be the “new normal.”
By DANILO ARAÑA ARAO
N.B. – A journalist emailed six questions on the “new normal” in media coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These are my answers.
Journalists often say “hindi natutulog ang balita,” which is characteristic not only of the nature of news but also of their work. Even during the severest calamities, you can be sure reporters are out on the field. Now, however, most reporters stay at home. Have there been other parallel circumstances in the past that also forced similar radical changes in the reporter’s work setup, or is this unprecedented?
In recent history, this is unprecedented in the sense that there is no pandemic of this proportion where lockdowns are imposed in many urban areas nationwide, or even the whole of Luzon for that matter. And because the COVID-19 virus has no known vaccine as of this writing, many journalists had been forced to work from home to avoid being infected. This setup is new and it is good to know that many news media organizations have made adjustments in the way they cover the news. The current situation proves that journalists are not only news-savvy but also tech-savvy. They are able to maximize gadgets like mobile phones. They are also quick to learn various communication tools that are usually dependent on Internet connection. For TV reporters in particular, it is commendable how creative they have become in converting their personal spaces into makeshift studios.
Beyond the pandemic context, however, one can claim that reporters have been restricted in the past whenever offensive military operations resulted in hamletting of certain communities. While there is no “work-from-home” arrangements in such a situation, the effect is the same: Journalists are prevented by the powers-that-be from going to certain areas and are encouraged to just believe documents and statements coming from official sources of information. So the hamletting of certain communities may be considered precedent cases in terms of restrictions imposed upon journalists in going to certain areas. The only difference now is that the term “quarantine area” replaces words like lockdown and hamletting.
What are some of the biggest changes in the way journalists covered the pandemic as opposed to how they covered other calamities in the past? Were there particular mediums (print, broadcast, online, radio) disproportionately affected by this?
Unlike past calamities, journalists need to be extra careful as they might end up being part of the statistics of COVID-19 cases. For those who need to go to quarantine areas to cover certain events, they are forced to follow certain health-related protocols like physical distancing and wearing of masks to ensure their safety. Compared to a strong typhoon where a journalist can readily see the threat to his or her safety, the COVID-19 virus remains an unknown “enemy” so he or she needs to proceed with caution.
The disadvantage of news media organizations rests not so much on the medium but on the disapproval of media accreditation. Contrary to what Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar said that all media applications will be approved, certain news media organizations were favored while others were not. For example, alternative news media organizations like AlterMidya, Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly were denied accreditation, on the premise that online publications can just simply work from home, according to an International Press Center (IPC) staff.
Because of the circumstances, reporters and officials have been doing video conferencing. What are some of its advantages vis-a-vis field work? Disadvantages? Did the quality of journalistic output suffer or gain?
Video conferencing is considered the next best option to face-to-face interviews as journalists can see their sources’ facial expressions and body language as they give their statements. Such elements are important in discerning follow-up questions to highlight the reasons for, say, the exasperation that may be evident in the way that the sources answer the questions.
However, nothing replaces face-to-face interviews as journalists are wont to do a better job interviewing by directly interacting with their sources. In a sense, the quality of research is better with face-to-face interviews but this is also contingent on the journalist’s interviewing skills and keen sense of observation, particularly on facial expressions and body language.
A clear disadvantage of video conferencing is the poor Internet connection in the Philippines. There could be disruptions in the interview flow due to choppy signals or dropped calls. In such cases, sources of information, especially those who have something to hide, gain some time to prepare for the hard questions once the signal gets stronger. This defeats the spontaneity of answering hard questions, compromising the task of journalists in ferreting out the truth and removing the trappings of parenthood statements and scripted propaganda.
Several journalists have said that video conferencing, while making access to government officials so much easier, also made it harder to ask questions to officials. Does transparency suffer in this practice? Is it possible to strike a balance between access and accountability here?
Video conferencing is just a tool, in the same way that “virtual pressers” can be done to ensure honesty or to cover-up anomaly. What makes things not so transparent right now is when journalists are sometimes only allowed to “phone in” their questions, giving sources of information the chance to screen these questions or to prepare for them beforehand. What should happen is that journalists should be physically inside a press briefing room so that they could ask the hard questions themselves. If such direct confrontations between government officials and journalists can happen in other countries right now despite the threat of the pandemic, why can’t it happen also in the Philippines?
Zoom is also criticized for its frail security and privacy settings. Considering this admin’s storied past with the press, should we be worried about this new practice being weaponized to target reporters?
In the context of digital security, we should assume that all platforms and software programs could be used for surveillance, data mining and other nefarious online practices. The basic challenge is to properly adjust the settings to ensure that certain app permissions like location are blocked (or at least allowed sparingly). In the case of Zoom, there is growing concern not just in the security flaws of the software itself but also where it stores user data. Is it true, for example, that some data are stored in servers located in China? This explains why any data we input in Zoom (e.g., mobile phone number, email address) should be already publicly available so that we don’t suffer too much from any unnecessary data breach.
As far as the Duterte administration is concerned, a lot is being weaponized, including laws that are supposed to protect the people. Media repression becomes possible, for example, by imposing media accreditation during the pandemic. Penalties for spreading “false information” are found in the recently enacted Bayanihan to Heal as One Act even if there is no clear definition as to what constitutes false information. With the government’s propensity for weaponizing laws, the people cannot be blamed for thinking that security flaws in certain software programs are being maximized by the powers-that-be to further repress their critics.
Moving forward, can video conferencing be expected to be part of the reporter’s arsenal post-pandemic? What are its potentials especially as journalists pivot to more digital content?
Given the post-lockdown “new normal,” video conferencing will become the norm in the months (and perhaps even years) to come. While face-to-face interviews are most ideal, journalists should make do with certain constraints to news gathering. They need to be more observant of facial expressions and body language so that they can quickly think of follow-up questions.
Aside from familiarity with video conferencing tools, journalists and news media organizations should invest heavily on equipment and quality Internet connection so that online communication is not compromised in any way.
Moving forward, it is imperative for journalists and media workers to ensure that media repression and creative forms of censorship do not happen. Virtual pressers where questions are screened cannot be the “new normal.” Physical distancing does not mean that government will distance themselves from reporters, especially those who ask the hard questions. Amid the pandemic, the government needs to be even more transparent and the journalists should not be prevented in any way to fulfill their mission in shaping public opinion.