Journalists Looking Back to 2016
THE BEST AND WORST OF TIMES
IT WAS, for journalists, the best of times and the worst of times.
Presidential election years are times of challenge and opportunity for citizens, politicians and journalists. Fresh mandates, a renewal of purpose and a chance for change — all these are elements that make a journalist’s world go ’round.
In 2016, advances in technology enabled faster and more creative story-telling by journalists, whether from the field or the television or radio studios. The internet allowed us to announce with reasonable certainty the emerging winner of the presidential election just hours after the closing of the polls. And data aggregation software enabled many networks to graphically tell the story of election day from the regional down to the municipal levels.
But the technology that enabled media also enabled what some have been touting as media’s greatest challenger and eventual successor. Twenty-sixteen will be known as the year when both the integrity and the purpose of the fourth estate came under fire from an increasingly aggressive social media community. It was the year when media’s vulnerabilities would be amplified and redirected by some sectors to undermine the entire institution. The words “biased” and “bayaran” were thrown around so freely that they were no longer accusations but assumptions. It was when “presstitute,” that catchy contraction of press and prostitute, became one of the most popular memes around. With just one word, people would cut down any article or commentary, from the plainly frivolous to the most balanced or well-researched; just because it didn’t agree with their political point of view.
More than that, 2016 was the year when the biggest and most virulent critics of the fourth estate were not just the people we cover and write about, but the people we cover and write FOR. For a journalist, there is nothing more painful. The chants and memes have become a mantra that spread among many Filipinos across the world. Death to mainstream media, long live social media! Boycott the Presstitutes! Get the full, unbiased and unvarnished truth from government media and your favorite bloggers on Facebook!
The danger is not in those who criticize media, but in those who prey on public misconceptions of media, who make a play with simplistic yet catchy buzzwords to use the heavily-polarized political atmosphere to force the fourth estate to sing just one tune. Some of them are politicians, some of them are former mediamen. And some are current mediamen identified with politicians.
Journalists are being forced to take sides in the bitter online war between those identified with the previous and the present administrations. This false dichotomy declares that one can only be with one or the other. Write anything remotely critical of policy, and be swamped with insults of “biased” and “bayaran.” It doesn’t matter that many fail to comprehend the nuances of media bias, or that critical is clearly not another word for corrupt. I have had many people urging me on Facebook to prove I have no biases by declaring my full support for the President. The irony is lost on many people.
The message lost in this charged atmosphere is that journalists are not even supposed to be pros or antis of any administration, not unless democratic institutions are already at stake. They simply are to be critical. Certainly, there are times when we bungle the job, or let our personal feelings get in the way. One broadsheet uses the phrase “foul-mouthed” to describe the president in its news stories. Another broadsheet fawned all over Duterte when he broadly labeled media as corrupt and said that journalists were legitimate targets of assassination.
In times like these, people do call us out, and rightly so. We should take as much as we dish it out. For years, we were safely ensconced in our assumed roles as the sole purveyors of the truth, even though, at times, some of us have been proven to be untruthful. There are many in media who have made it their role to point this out.
And we also have our own demons to battle, from glaring inequities between superstar anchors and the underpaid contractuals who make them sound intelligent, to ethical issues like media owners who claim to crack down on envelopmental journalism while they make deals with politicians. There are groups in media who have made these ethical issues their advocacy too.
But still, our job remains that of being the critical voice, because that is something you can not expect of government media, or hyper-partisan people in social media. We were never supposed to be liked by the people we cover. Then President Aquino also hated the way the press covered him, and slammed the media during two consecutive national press forums of the Philippine Press Institute. Curiously, the press that Aquino hated then has now been branded as “dilawan” by supporters of the current administration.
Now more than ever, journalists need to prove their worth to a more critical, perhaps more cynical audience. We no longer have the monopoly of publication. In an era of fake news and uninformed opinions, our responsibility has grown tenfold. We need to prove that we can deliver better and more reliably than our neighbor’s Facebook feed, and go beyond the interests of circulations and ratings. We need to remain both relevant and compelling in a world long on information and short on attention spans. We need to adapt because we should work with social media, not surrender to it. There is, after all, a basic difference between social media and the fourth estate. Our social media feeds are geared towards information we want; editorial judgments are geared towards information we need. And information we need to act on.
And we need to keep a critical eye on an administration that has no compunction about using its popularity to bully journalists into submission. It can get extremely difficult to go against a wave of populism, but this should be one of the things that distinguishes real journalists and statesmen from politicians.
All this, while we acknowledge and address our failings. Complaints against media resonate because the public sees a grain of truth in many of them. Three decades ago, Marcos was accused of abusing his power to control the flow of information; today, the press is being tarred by some with the same brush.
If only because of these new challenges, now is precisely the best time to be a journalist.
And then, there is that phony war between mainstream and social media. There are those who try to pit one against the other, as if only one could and would survive. There is no question that media has had its failings. What it needs is reform, not replacement, and certainly not replacement by people who, rather disingenuously, insist that they are doing the work of the fourth estate but need not be bound by editorial standards because they never claimed to be journalists. Yet there are too many already who assert the belief that social media must take the place of an unreliable and commercialized mainstream media, as if one is the antidote for the other. When that day comes, then that would certainly be the worst of times.
*Ed Lingao was a JVOJS 2016 panelist