The Challenge of 2016
2016 HAS been described sufficiently as a year of horrors. The twelve months reeled out a chain of events which wreaked havoc and loss of life around the world. Masses of refugees pulled at the fabric of societies whose borders they crossed. Terror attacks and climactic disasters struck with violence as political upheavals in different countries broke the long established order in national affairs.
The Philippines was not exempt from turmoil with the ascent to power of a political newcomer to national politics. In the six months in office of President Rodrigo Duterte, the country has been strained by political division, fear and uncertainty. Strangely enough, it shares the affliction with other long-standing democracies of the West, all shaken by the public’s repudiation of the status quo. Brexit in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump as the leader of the free world are two singular events, suggesting some deep radical change, the impact of which may signal the end or beginning of an age.
Duterte’s rise to power seems to be part of the global pattern. His expressed anger at President Barack Obama warned of a historic break in the long standing alliance between the Philippines and the US, effectively shifting the balance of power in the region as his government leans to China. He shares with newly elected American president, Donald Trump, a dubious admiration and affinity with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
At home, his war against drugs unleashed police and vigilante violence that has so far killed over 6000 suspects living in poor city slums. Many of these cases have been classified as EJKs. Police have announced that they will investigate their ranks; but no findings have been reported to date.
Worse, the drug war has caused the interrogation of democratic liberal values, which however these may have been breached in the past, have remained enshrined in every legitimately framed constitution in our history. Filipinos seem to accept the president’s disrespect for human life, his dismissal of human rights, due process and checks and balances to executive power.
Media’s Role in Current Disorder
The media have been noted as a force in the swift currents of change. Revolutionary advances in communication technology enable anyone with the means to manufacture endless loops of political messages. Visualization has quickly popularized an idea or individual. Complex narratives are simplified with careless disregard for facts and context. Social media does not discriminate. It transmits all inputs, regardless of truthfulness or accuracy, value or legitimacy.
The technology designed to enhance dialogue and learning has also effectively destroyed the bases for reasoned debate and the potential for consensus. Ceaseless communication 24/7 has opened the floodgates for the stream of lies, assertions without proof, claims without evidence. What is digitally fixed fastens itself in the public mind as a root clings to the soil, growing organically into conviction and belief.
Ironically, in the midst of abundant information, so many choose to continue thinking simply as they like. Many go to social media to be part of something larger than their lives. But for this experience to be beneficial, one must be willing to work, go to other sources, question one’s presumptions, listen to the other side.
By choice, many insist that their perception is all that matters, holding on to their propaganda of choice. Not surprisingly, social media have been taken over by paid hacks and PR agents, mechanized “bots” and other producers of pre-produced retorts and responses, including fake news.
Internet was hailed for its ability to democratize the news business, but it has also reduced the value of news. The editorial process which checks the news product for accuracy and relevance may not have been perfect. Indeed, not all, but one too many working journalists have sold out the editorial process for various reasons. Journalists in the mainstream are vulnerable to the generalized attack to devalue the news they produce.
Despite all this, we can look to genuine pockets of quality journalism, where those who produce the news commit to verification as the heart of the endeavour.
The Challenge to News and Democracy
The challenge to news is at the heart of the decline of democracy. There is a connection between the failure of news and the popular following of demagogues and despots. Politicians boasting they know it all, insisting they must not be checked by other powers have won elections or kept their positions of power. 2016’s challenge to news is a pivotal question for all contemplating the decline of democracy and the future this will bring.
The internet will always be a factor. Controlling it or banning its use is not an answer. The application of technology requires a value system, an ethical grid, a sense of social responsibility. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, says it is “essential for us to develop a framework for how our ethics, government, educational system and media evolve in the age of machine intelligence.”
In the last month of 2016, journalists and academics were playing catch up for what the news had missed in 2016 and in the years preceding it. In the US, the news did not see the probability of a Trump presidency. Why was a highly developed news system and mature institution quite clueless of this electoral outcome?
Perhaps, the news system needs fixing. Like democracy itself. While the Internet is a democratizing force, it can work against the conditions that give democracy and its freedom its required discipline.
It may be time to take Journalism 101 out of the dusty texts to review if its conventions and principles still apply. For example, the criteria for news necessarily joined media practitioners to elite and established powers. Theirs was a necessary synergy. But joined at the hip, press and politics may have lost their way, unable to sense the discontent of those who were not elite and established, of the many who were marginalized and left behind. The taste for celebrity has fostered a public enchantment for the demagogue, the know-it-all-and-fix-it kind of candidate.
Indeed, reports on the campaign trail did not provoke the thoughtful scrutiny of prospective leaders. Rather they reported the trivial tidbits, outrageous jokes and outlandish language, distracting the public from the serious assessment of the candidate’s worthiness.
Journalism involves exercise of power. It is not surprising that journalists lose the point of news reporting and commentary, which it to keep citizens informed – so they can choose good and wise leaders. It is not surprising for many journalists to identify more with the powerful and the prominent and to lose touch with the news from the ground, from the grassroots where real people live.
In the last week of December, the press community around the world scrambled to review what they missed, what they failed to capture. Special reports inquired into the decline of democracy, the threat to liberal values as communities expressed their disenchantment with the system which displaced them or left them out.
Media Times adds its own questions to the list: How can journalism recover its place as a source of information and learning? Should our news process adjust to the changing times?
This digital issue of Media Times reviews 2016 through the perspective of the news and the prism of the press. The year has been filled with bad news, yes. But we must remain hopeful. The most painful experience can create new possibilities, new alternatives. Let technology enhance media power so journalism can serve and fulfill the human hunger for learning.
Let the review of news be part of the search for solutions.
Join us in this effort in 2017.
MELINDA QUINTOS DE JESUS