Journalists Looking Back to 2016

MEDIA IN THE DEFENSIVE

 

IF AT all journalism is a capitalist venture, its currency for investment ought to be no less than unassailable integrity, and the much sought-after return on investment, no less the public trust.

This is a tall order for an enterprise as constantly struggling and imperfect as the media.

It is, in a whole lot of sense, a capitalist venture. We’re all aware of that. Communication is a billion-peso enterprise. In fact, without a working press, advertising and public relations would not have grown by leaps and bounds in the last century.

Owners of media outfits in the Philippines, as it is elsewhere, comprise the crème de la crème of the financial world who want to cash in on the venture.

Nothing really wrong with such an undertaking, if you ask me. Publishing exacts a toll on finances with millions spent on paper, ink, printing machines, writers, correspondents, editors, creative staff, delivery and circulation, website upkeep and myriads of other costs. Paper and ink alone siphon a bulk of the capital, not to include wages, website design, and maintenance in a relentlessly evolving digital media enterprise.

Problem is, the little spent on wages to augment equipment and annual ROIs force some editors and reporters to take the difficult route: via pay-per-write. This campaign for online content has taken a gigantic leap at the onset of the internet and social media. Some media practitioners today had to juggle two to four writing and editing jobs on top of their newsroom requirements if only to put food on the table.

Let’s not even talk of an even more perilous risk: Some editors and reporters grudgingly, or even wilfully, taking bribes for reasons of intimidation, greed, or wanton poverty.

“Survival wages,” as they are called, shape and form newsroom culture in some media firms around the country. This puts content into serious question, if not performance on the whole, with certain news items leaving a sour aftertaste due to “obvious political color.”

Should we therefore conclude that Philippine media industry is facing a crisis? Some say it is already in the thick of fighting for its life. For one, advertising has shifted dramatically to support online news sites, leaving print and broadcast to fend for themselves.

Some print titles have closed shop, leaving its online presence as a shadow of what once was. One good example is the Philippines Free Press. After a little over a century of publishing, it decided to fold, survived only by its online site for a number of months.

Others chose to wade through financial outlays the likes of which forced small media companies to drag its feet through the mud.

And there are those who chose to join the fray online, no matter the risks and costs involved, what with all the fake news sites and fraudulent content appearing on social media.

The clash for attention is fierce. The launching of the Duterte presidency in the middle of 2016 saw internet news sites mushrooming with little or no reservations as to the shady content they’re spreading online. Numerous blog sites became the preference of a good number of netizens over and above mainstream newspaper and magazine columnists. The reason: These bloggers speak and write in the language of the ordinary citizen.

Since then, two camps have been battling it out for supremacy in the worldwide web — the “Yellows,” those loyal to the Liberal Party stalwarts, and the so-called “Dutertards,” the supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte. This left much of the mainstream media in the middle of the mêlée. Pass judgment on any of the two camps, and you’re either against President Duterte or former President Noynoy Aquino.

This popular yet false dichotomy, to me, brought home a question: Have we, as members of the media, failed to bring home to the public eye our true jobs as journalists?

For starters, most people think our attempts at objectivity point to the need for journalists to be neutral. This, I believe, is a serious misunderstanding.

Journalistic objectivity is not neutrality. Let’s disabuse ourselves of the thought. What the principle of objectivity demands from journalists is fairness in the rendering of a report. This simply means that journalists must, as a matter of principle, give rival voices their due space in reportage.

Objectivity, however, does not in any way, shape or form rob a journalist of his right to take sides — the side to which proofs and the context of the story takes him. Believe it or not, there is a context to every story, a “slant” where prior events and statements, as well as concrete evidence, form the story’s initial deduction and final conclusion.

Objectivity compels journalists to test information and use a more transparent approach to data gathering. Accuracy is objectivity’s final goal. In the ultimate analysis, the truth will reveal itself in the course of exercising the discipline of the profession. Journalism’s aim, thereafter, is to reveal the facts.

In short, one cannot expect a journalist worth his salt to speak favourably of a corrupt official or a murderer, in the name of objectivity, when evidence and context point to these specific individuals as culprits in the crime.

Accuracy is not free of bias. It will always point to a specific conclusion based on evidence. Objectivity exists in the processes and methods employed, not in the journalist.

Accuracy, more than good intentions, therefore, make for exemplary journalism.

This misinterpretation of the job of a journalist has put the media in the defensive. The gamut of stories that went viral these past few years have been accusations against members of the media who supposedly “took a stand.” We’ve been accused of “bias” even in stories where it cannot be found.

Is this the fault of netizens? Or is it ours — we, who may have failed in understanding our roles as members of the Fourth Estate? A more pressing question: Are our universities making the same errors when training campus journalists? Behind the four walls of our respected institutions, are objectivity and neutrality being taught as one and the same?

I don’t know. If at all the media is faced with a crisis, I feel it is the failure to comprehend the processes that define the discipline of our craft. While theory taught in classrooms makes a big deal of objectivity, actual field experience — the culling and interpretation of documents, materials and facts of each case — tells us otherwise.

Worse, this misinterpretation of objectivity forces journalists to defend against criticisms the stories they write and the stands they make. This puts us under the unwelcome glare of publicity. Negative or positive publicity makes no difference.

Journalists have become the story. And because of it, in the public eye, we have ceased to be journalists.

It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. A place of uncertainty. The seat of confusion. With a Fourth Estate suffering from a crisis in accuracy, the rest of the public is left with little choice but to cling to “alternative truths.”

Going public in the defense of our positions helps little. Time spent to shield ourselves and our cause from further criticisms robs us of the hours needed to pursue the profession. Here we begin to see a cycle of deterioration because the more we defend ourselves, the more public perception plummets.

One thing is certain, however; at no other era is the public in desperate need of accurate information than today. The media is left with either one of two choices: to lose hours defending each and every story, or to soldier on despite a critical public.

I think we all know the answer to that. We have our work cut out for us. The challenge confronting the industry is well-nigh insurmountable only if we value what others think of our work above our assessment on how we employ the craft. How and for what reasons we do the work we do should matter above everything else.

The truth needs no defense. It will stand on its own despite the ravages of time and public perception. Time is never on the side of lies. Besides, we’re not here to make pop idols of ourselves. A journalist’s allegiance is to facts, above all, not public perception.

Accuracy, and the time-tested tradition of soldiering on come hell or high water, are what makes us journalists. The rest are perks we can live without.

*Joel Pablo Salud was a JVOJS 2016 panelist

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JOEL PABLO SALUD
Editor-in-chief, Philippines Graphic