Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. IV,  No. 29                           August 22 - 28, 2004                      Quezon City, Philippines


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Media’s Role in the 2004 Elections:
Profit Orientation as Media’s Pitfall

Mass media play a major role in not just informing audiences but also in motivating them toward certain courses of action. Journalism, after all, has ceased to limit itself to filling in the 5 Ws and 1 H (i.e., Who, What, When, Where, Why and How). More important, it must also answer questions like “So What?” and “What Now?” This is a condensed version of the author’s presentation on August 24 at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP CMC).


Journalists indeed live in dangerous times as 55 of them have been killed since 1986 - six of them in 2004 alone. The perceived societal indifference on the plight of journalists may be rooted in the way mass media are viewed by various audiences. For the longest time, mass media has been accused of being irresponsible, abusive and unable to provide information that they need.

The coverage of the 2004 national and local elections proves to be no exception. As in past elections, the people were inundated with name-calling and muckraking, and - in the tradition of telenovelas that have gained significant following among most TV viewers - got a preview of the personal lives of candidates. There were stories about an estranged wife and a long-lost son, as well as romance that reportedly developed in the campaign trail between a senatorial candidate and a broadcast journalist.

Much like a popular telenovela, the audiences anticipated developments of such stories with bated breath. That is not to say that mass media reneged on its responsibility to analyze social issues and concerns during the campaign period. There were efforts to do so, but it is important to analyze whether such initiatives were enough.

While mass media assuaged the people’s hunger for information, the question remains as to what kind of information had been provided and if the ones that matter had been enough to give the people an informed choice on election day.

Media as main sources in the 2004 elections

Based on the Pulse Asia survey conducted from March 27 to April 4, 2004, 95 percent of registered voters nationwide relied on television, radio and newspapers for information and news about the candidates and the electoral campaign.

Among the forms of mass media, television was mostly used as primary source by 71 percent of respondents. Radio was a distant second with 20 percent and newspaper was third with only 4 percent. Other primary sources cited were friends/relatives (3 percent) and posters and other campaign materials (1 percent).

The data validate the superiority of television and the ubiquity of radio. The current status of television explains why candidates tend to hire celebrities to prop up their campaigns and even package themselves as celebrity look-alikes.

The distinct advantage of media practitioners and celebrities running for public office also cannot be denied. In the National Capital Region (NCR), data from Commission on Elections (Comelec) revealed that out of 52 celebrities who ran for mayor, vice mayor, councilor and congressional representative, 20 of them (or 39 percent) won.

While the reach of newspapers is limited, their influence on public opinion can still be felt. In 1998, a survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed that among the three most frequently read broadsheets, “44 percent of the respondents gave the Philippine Daily Inquirer a ranking of 1, followed by Manila Bulletin and Philippine Star which were ranked first by 42 percent and 14 percent of the respondents, respectively.”

The big newspapers’ wielding of power and influence is the same as broadcast media’s where those in need of media coverage - in this case, the national and local candidates - prefer to approach network giants ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7. Compared to other stations, their news and public affairs programs do not need to go out of their way to interview “hot copies” and normally enjoy the privilege of being wooed by lobbyists from government and cause-oriented groups. It does not come as a surprise that these stations also benefited from demands for political advertising space during the campaign period.

Data from the Nielsen Media Research showed four candidates for president and seven candidates for senator allocating 86 percent to 100 percent of their total TV political ad spending to ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7.

President Macapagal-Arroyo who eventually won the presidency was “the top spender among the presidential candidates, with P53.82 million spent for her 229 ad spots.” Sen. Mar Roxas who topped the senatorial race was the number one spender among other candidates because his “382 ads released from February 10 to March 20 cost P40.30 million.”

Indeed, that mass media were instrumental in the winning of candidates may be more effectively appreciated in the context not just of news stories but also of the ad spots that were bought by the candidates and political parties.

Mass media’s credibility

Among the mass media, Pulse Asia said that 67 percent of its respondents in a survey conducted from March 27 to April 4, 2004 found television to be the most credible source of information and news about the candidates and the election campaign. Only 20 percent and 5 percent of respondents chose radio and newspaper, respectively, as most credible.

Interestingly, a Pulse Asia survey on media credibility conducted from Dec. 9 to 20, 1999 showed that 53 percent of respondents at that time thought television to be “more often credible.” For radio and newspaper, the figures were 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

While television’s credibility increased by 14 percent in 2004, the credibility of radio and newspaper had a substantial decline.

Compared to the other traditional media, television is relatively new since this particular medium’s actual broadcast happened in 1953. The latter was, incidentally, an election year when then “President Elpidio Quirino was up for reelection.” On the other hand, the beginnings of Philippine radio were traced to the “very early 1930s” while the country’s first newspaper, Del Superior Gobierno, was published in 1811.

The older media tend to suffer in terms of credibility as newer ones emerge. If and when new media becomes more accessible and affordable to Filipinos, one might see the situation where it will, in due time, become more credible than television.

Assessing the role of mass media

Various media analysts stress that the primary role of mass media during an election is to inform the public about what the issues are and what the candidates stand for. Mass media, it was stressed, can also be a forum for the exchange of ideas among the electorate, as well as between the electorate and the political candidates…Mass media can (also) be the guardian of integrity of the elections.

The important role of mass media in the elections prompted concerned groups and individuals to monitor election coverage. The Elections: Citizens Media Monitor project - a monitoring led by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) of the front page of three newspapers and six television news programs during the campaign period - showed that notwithstanding “some significant efforts by media to improve reports, the press ignored critical election-related areas, such as elections on the party-list, local and senate levels. Development and policy issues were largely unreported by the press. Sensationalism persisted, particularly in (television) broadcasting.”

On a positive note, “the study also found that the candidates for president, including disqualified bet Eddie Gil, were all given fair media access. It did not find any organizational bias from the newspapers and TV programs monitored.”

The editors and news managers - touted the gatekeepers of mass media - interviewed by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) stressed that there were not enough discussions on issues and platforms for the following reasons:

  • For the print media: Candidates skirted issues or couldn’t articulate their stand on them; reporters tend to just meet “boundary” (i.e., number of stories to be filed in one day), making the report superficial since they simply wrote what they saw; and issues were located in the inside pages.

  • For the broadcast media: Personalities make the news, and there was hunger for information on candidates; issues don’t sell newscast and don’t rate; analyses are harder to do, especially for TV, and it takes more out of reporter and producer; and there are public affairs programs or cable television that will discuss issues.

These views show that passive coverage was evident during the election campaign. Mass media lacked the resourcefulness to elicit responses from their sources. While a journalist may fail to have answers after so many creative ways of trying to get them, it becomes his or her duty as a media practitioner “to expose the failure of that particular candidate to answer. This will reflect on how much effort (a journalist) put in to ask that question. But so far, that has not been the case.”

Conclusion as contextualization

Mass media play a major role in not just informing audiences but also in motivating them toward certain courses of action. Journalism, after all, has ceased to limit itself to answering the basic 5 Ws and 1 H (i.e., Who, What, When, Where, Why and How). At present, at least in theory, it should also answer questions like “So What?” and “What Now?”

In a Third World society characterized by, among others, the polarization of social forces, mass media should provide an accurate depiction of the national situation. The nature of mass media makes it, of course, impossible to mirror social reality since only aspects of it can be reported at a given time. The challenge as to what part of reality to report rests of journalists and the gatekeepers (i.e., editors) and if the election coverage were any indication, a major criterion in reportage is what will “sell” the publication or program.

Just like the 2004 elections which were determined mainly by “money politics,” the operations of mass media depended on increased audiences which would eventually result in increased advertisements, ergo more revenues for the media organization.

The practice of the media profession is obviously not about revenues, which explains why progressive academicians and journalists prefer not to use the term “industry” in describing mass media. After all, the word denotes “a specific type of manufacturing, business; any of various large-scale money-making activities.” (The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language 1990: 495)

Being a journalist is not just a career since it is a commitment to the truth as can be gleaned from the facts. The tendency of a journalist to just breeze through becomes counter-productive especially if he or she refuses to tackle the issues that matter to the people.

It is easy to propose measures that will improve the journalist’s writing and analytical skills, but if the media organization gets preoccupied with revenue generation instead of encouraging journalists to pursue good leads, the audience will continue to be short-changed in terms of information that they need. It is necessary for media organizations to take risks. After all, it is inherent in its role to do so.

The failure of mass media to set the agenda in the 2004 elections may be rooted in the profit orientation of corporate/mainstream media. Except for government television - whose agenda the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) bared was defined by Malacañang - there is no evidence of owners pressuring their media organizations to favor certain candidates.

Nevertheless, profit orientation still directly affects the content of reportage since the choice of what to publish or air all boils down to what sells or rates. Based on the conduct of media reportage of the 2004 elections, the mainstream media agencies refused to take a risk in discussing issues and concerns which were dismissed as boring and uninteresting to the audiences.

If there is one lesson that can be learned from the coverage of the 2004 elections, it is the need to analyze the profit orientation of corporate/mainstream media. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the commitment to the truth remains an empty promise as “service to the people” is defined along the lines of how media agencies can profit from it. Bulatlat

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