FIRST PERSONCacophony of facts-only churnalism
Diola is the editor of Philstar.com and Interaksyon. Her views do not reflect
those of her employer.
THE FLURRY of headlines has been overwhelmingly of tired templates — sound bite angles, rewritten press releases and, for a time last year, Isko Moreno’s every move as Manila mayor.
Cynthia Villar, the Senate’s agriculture and food panel chair and wife of the country’s richest man, missed the point when asked about concerns over the rising prices of galunggong, the poor man’s fish. “Eh ‘di ‘wag kumain ng galunggong (Then don’t eat scad),” she suggested in earnest last December 2019.
Most reports simply recorded her whole rant and then stopped there as if her words were either a rare nugget of wisdom or a misapprehension too self-evident to correct. There was hardly any mention of what this fish stands for in economics, why it was costly considering minimum wages and why Villar should be less concerned about what the poor prefer to eat than by making food more available and accessible to them.
Yet her comments, however farcical, were hardly out of place in a sea of official spin, prevarication and innuendo since 2016.
There’s presidential spokesperson and counsel Salvador Panelo whose regular press conferences are constant inspiration for memes. The man is a sound bite machine, armed with 1,001 interpretations of the president’s words and actions. Many times, news outlets are obliged for his easy clickbait.
The principal, of course, has been Rodrigo Duterte. Initially, he was every bit the story: Novel, powerful, unpredictable. His addresses, especially in the early months of his term, could last for an hour. Demand for Duterte news was sky-high, and that justified extended newsroom hours to catch his every word. So we did what we were used to doing. We picked an angle or a catchy quote and followed the formula of the inverted pyramid and the who-what-when-where-how.
It was the same reporting formula we used in the years past, the one that earned us As and Bs in J-school, the one that allowed us to pen as many reports to attract web traffic, the one that assumes presidential speeches are deliberate, that data cited are accurate and their policy implications are noteworthy.
Unfortunately, there was nothing standard or presidential about Duterte’s speeches. Because the formula constrains us, the majority of news reports leave his outrageous claims unchallenged. Alarm bells are not raised over his view of critics as existential threats. Each of his many cries of “destabilization” is reported as if it were singular. Moreover, the media’s commodification of “the latest” and the “breaking” led to the practice of live streaming, live tweeting and paraphrasing Duterte’s addresses, while sacrificing the space for context and time for verification.
We feel it is a safe rhythm. After all, our reports on events, the president and his cohorts are factual. We present two opposing sides in the same or the next story. We fill in the informational gaps with volume. And we are satisfied of our so-called neutrality. We’ve done our job.
Or have we?
Objecting to ‘objectivity’
Years before becoming editor, I was a young online reporter contented with the daily churn. I was eager to get more readers by producing more of what I thought were “standard” reports, and spikes in real-time readership affirmed my efforts.
Covering an event one day, I sat in bleachers next to an experienced journalist from an international agency. He told me of his days as a reporter in the ‘80s who had to dictate his multi-sourced scoop in a phone booth to a stenographer for the news desk while praying he wouldn’t run out of coins.
“Today, journalists are actually stenographers,” he told me. “No thanks to the internet and social media, they stop at ‘he said, she said,’ press send and pack up for the day.”
I couldn’t sleep that night. I became aware that I called myself the media yet I was not mediating; I was just a lazy stenographer. I didn’t spend time to explain what an official pronouncement meant because I needed to start writing my next report and hit the day’s quota. Sure, I strived to be a balanced, factual and neutral reporter but those values didn’t keep me from being mediocre.
Since then, I often replayed our conversation in my head and relentlessly tried to identify weaknesses in my own reporting and gaps in newsrooms’ processes of gathering and presenting information.
Could we say we were doing our job if Filipinos still can’t distinguish “sovereignty” and “jurisdiction” in asserting our rights over the South China Sea? If some readers applaud President Duterte whenever he’s called a “strongman”? If politicians with blemished records get elected again and again? And how could we have forgiven ourselves for the lives Super Typhoon Yolanda ruined after we failed to describe what a “storm surge” would look like?
I realized that while we say our job is to uncover the truth, we often end the pursuit prematurely before making sense of it for our readers.
Conventional reporting in the Philippines has had that numbing cycle: Here are some facts and here’s what opposing news subjects say and then let’s let readers decide what and who is right.
In doing so, we’re assuming without basis that readers have the tools and contextual information needed to judge and make sound decisions. If they don’t, our reportage seems to advise them, “Check the op-eds, wait for that in-depth, go to Twitter. I can’t help you further without being labeled ‘biased’.”
The fear of being accused of bias paralyzes us. What we don’t realize is such accusations are not disinterested, usually coming from a place that’s politicized (the hostile media effect). We have access to more information and are closer to the story than the general public and yet we hesitate to interpret the facts. We omit the fact-checking of claims and use euphemisms for lies lest we be perceived as partisan. Too often we skip pointing out in plain language the ill effects of a policy, the pattern of a politician’s actions or the indignity from a slur.
If the vague ideal of objectivity and neutrality leads to an ill-informed citizenry, then it seems to be less a virtue than a great disservice.
In this age of disinformation and under a regime of deception, it is most comfortable to be mouthpieces of mouthpieces, to hold a megaphone for officials, politicians, organizations and companies instead of flushing their words down a filter. It is time we decide who we serve, the politicians or the public.