FIRST PERSONPandemic Blues
Mogato and his two colleagues were awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for International
Reporting for the Reuter’s series “Duterte’s War,” which exposed the brutal killing campaign behind the war on drugs in the Philippines. Mogato currently hosts a current affairs program at One News.
His views do not reflect those of his employer.
COVERING THE coronavirus pandemic is not a joke.
As the pandemic pushed media reporting to digital platforms, the challenges posed by social media have doubled, even tripled in difficulty and number. Journalists now have to compete in the race against ordinary citizens who are spreading the news they heard or clicked forward on social media platforms. Reporters are aware they no longer command public attention, and their role as the primary source of information has dramatically diminished in the public sphere. The last blow, news sources have caught on and are ignoring them
Often, “seen zone lang sila” (“they are in seen zone only”) in most social media instant messaging apps as news sources become picky or prickly about being asked hard questions.
The chatroom boom on Viber has opened new fields of battle where the journalists are usually at the losing end. In one chat room, for instance, reporters never got a response when they asked for a comment on the illegal vaccination of soldiers belonging to an elite unit guarding the president. What they received instead was a New Year’s day greeting.
One exasperated reporter lost his cool when he was snubbed by an official — he raved and ranted then deleted himself from a Viber chat group – something that happens quite often on social media these days. But before removing himself from the thread, he really let off some steam, venting his frustration on officials who had been trying to evade controversial questions. “You are the biggest scam ever to the people. Sorry to say but it is (true).” He closed his farewell with “This Viber group is a joke, but I thank you for having me for quite some time now.”
Other reporters learned some tricks of the game, catching and posting “hugot lines” to make fun of the chat rooms.
For instance, one reporter posted a message: “Akala ko ba walang maiiwan? Bakit itong Viber group na ito laging napagiiwanan? (I thought no one would be left behind. How come this Viber group is always left behind?”) — which was her response to vaccine czar Carlito Galvez when he made the grand assurance “walang maiiwan” in the vaccination roll out – posted in another chat room. “Why wasn’t this posted here? Got this pa from another group,” the reporter asked. She got no response.
This situation illustrates the difficulty of doing everything, news gathering and talking to sources on “remote.” As many have found, the press has been at a complete disadvantage. In contrast, official sources especially those who want to escape nosy journalists take control. “Remote” favors officials and politicians, can pretend to have technical problems just to avoid having to answer a difficult question or an embarrassing point. “Sorry, what was the question, again? zzzzzzzzz, sorry my internet connection is so terrible, next question please.”
Another reporter found out that he was rudely taken off the air, placed on mute while he was still speaking during an online news conference. Others were blocked or kicked out from a chat group,
Before the pandemic, President Rodrigo Duterte banned Rappler reporters from his official events. The COVID-19 outbreak has made it easy for any official to exclude and silence reporters anytime they click “mute.”
They can set limits to time and number of questions, entertaining only friendly ones. They can screen questions, choosing only those they want to answer and avoid hot-to-handle issues. Following up on anything said or discussed in the weekly late night meetings with the president, reporters asking for comments would get only complete silence. Yes, “Duterte’s late night TV show” has become one of the hardest tests for the press — at least those who still feel obliged to tune in just in case there was some development that citizens should know about. The ungodly hour made it even more difficult to figure out if anyone was making sense.
Quarantine conditions have reduced the Information to flow on a one-way street, with news sources controlling the one direction — from them to the media. News sources can do as they please, spew propaganda or spin an issue or problem, spreading disinformation in Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.
With more people turning to social media for information, depending on their mobile phones, tablets and computers, these create a comfort zone with information that users feel they trust. Meanwhile, some legacy media continue to struggle to report verified and relevant news, but are ignored and excluded in the echo chambers of countless netizens.
In 2020, Reuters Institute conducted a global survey on media’s credibility showing the public trust in Philippine news organizations had plunged to 27 percent, one of the lowest in the world, an alarming rate when you think of how disinformation spreads faster and wider in the country.
Dealing with disinformation has become the journalists’ biggest challenge, given so much medical jargon that became a crucial part of news telling. Journalists had to struggle to understand what an “r-naught” or “mRNA” vaccine is, much more to explain these to ordinary people, hold their attention because you are talking about stuff that could be life-saving. Sadly, reporters have been prone to commit mistakes, passing on more misinformation.
Some medical experts also contributed to the confusion because they were dealing with a new virus and knew little about it when it first broke out. The lack of knowledge about the disease led officials to give contradicting and confusing information to the public.
It did not help when Health Secretary Francisco Duque III himself talked about terms which added to the confusion: “flattening the curve,” “a second wave.” The man could not even decide on the correct use of the face mask; much less the basics of how this virus infects and spreads.
These challenges — the lack of transparency and the conflicting information from officials — should have brought out the best from journalists working in the time of pandemic. The crisis should have shown them the importance of what they do, reporting only what they have verified as accurate and true, consulting only with the most trusted and reliable primary sources of information. When the officials in charge could not be depended on to do this, then journalists should’ve taken pause.
Wait! Step on the brakes and think before posting viral content in social media. Stop the urge to be the first. It is prudent to be cautious rather than get burned. That’s the easiest way to lose credibility.
Avoid reporting unverified information as gospel truth even when it comes from officials, without thorough scrutiny with available online fact-checking tools. Be always skeptical. But check out the information as these could potentially lead to real stories.
Back to the battle with sources, reporters should not be shaken off so easily. They can be insistent and persistent, and not take no for an answer. There are a few tricks to compel news sources to respond to an issue, like “shaking the tree” technique.
With so many living their virtual lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and Tiktok, these now hold information that can be mined for data-based accounts the analysis of which might help explain why we live in such a troubled world.
Perhaps, we need to learn how to tell different kinds of stories, because it is a world on reset and things are always changing. But some basics should stay the same. They must not give up and waver from truth telling to serve public interest. More than most crises that journalists have experienced to report, the pandemic teaches this every day it blights our lives.
Journalists have to be true to these values — unless they are willing to chuck the press ID they own so they can be called something else.