The media in the time of COVID
Uncritical adherence to conventions is indeed
a major factor in many journalists being no more
analytical than their cameras and
LUIS V. TEODORO
THE COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worst time for the Philippines. In 2016, a plurality of the electorate transformed a provincial tyranny into a national catastrophe. Though undeclared, the return of despotic rule brought with it not only the unrestrained use of state power and violence against the poor, the powerless, government critics, political and social activists, and dissenters, but also a coterie of officials of unprecedented incompetence.
Not that past regimes have been models of competence, efficiency, vision, or dedication to public service. But what has been evident over the past five years is that the Duterte regime is exceptional in the gross incapacity of its officials to do their jobs — or, in some cases, to even understand what their particular tasks and responsibilities are, beyond applauding what passes for their patron’s policies.
As a result, the country’s government institutions, among them those agencies most crucial to the provision of social services such as the Departments of Health, Social Welfare and Education, which have been failing before Mr. Duterte’s troubling watch, have even more egregiously failed in doing their mandated tasks of providing the citizenry the medical care, social amelioration, and access to education that it needs for the country to progress or to just stay in place.
Every year the country has faced shortages in the number of doctors, nurses and the other medical personnel it needs, as droves of graduates of the medical, nursing, and public health schools leave for jobs abroad. Raising their wages could have kept at least some of these medical personnel in the country. But the regime failure to do so during the pandemic, aggravated the shortage of much needed health workers.
Decline in education, Stalled economy
The deterioration of education has also been ongoing because of the corruption that among others consists of the approval for use in the country’s primary and secondary education levels of error-filled textbooks, as well as the shortfall in teachers and classrooms. Because of limited citizen access to computers and poor connectivity, the recourse to distance learning during the pandemic has been much less than the success regime propagandists claim it to be.
The pandemic also forced a huge number of small and medium enterprises to shut down, leading to four million more workers losing their jobs in addition to the usual legions of unemployed and underemployed. The number of COVID-19 infections has meanwhile risen to nearly three million and made the full reopening of the economy problematic.
What could have been
A more competent and less corrupt dispensation could have prevented, or at least mitigated the extent of, the present crisis. It could have quickly shut down the country’s borders in 2020 and, as vaccines were developed in a number of countries, arranged for the purchase of the most reliable brands.
Instead, the present regime lost precious time before doing either. But even when visitors from China were officially barred from travel to the Philippines, the Bureau of Immigration provided preferential treatment as visas-upon-arrival for Chinese nationals to enter the country; while the government’s preference for China-sourced vaccines prevented early on the purchase of vaccines produced in other countries.
What could have made a difference is the information and analysis that the mass media are duty-bound to provide. Armed with an understanding of what is going on and of what is needed to address these issues, an informed and engaged citizenry could have compelled government to adopt the necessary measures to mitigate the crisis that its incompetence had exacerbated.
A “community” Divided
Unfortunately, the media too have been failing for decades because of (1) the system of private ownership in which conflicting political and economic interests are in such constant contention they hinder the making of a community of shared values; (2) the vast differences in training, and even the absence of it, among practitioners that results in professional and ethical lapses; (3) the corruption and patron-client relations between some practitioners and their sources that prevent their fulfilling the fundamental responsibility of truth-telling; and (4) the continuing killing and harassment of journalists.
President Duterte himself aggravated the fear factor that violence against journalists has introduced in Philippine media practice over the past four decades. Not only did he justify the killing of journalists in 2016. He also demonstrated on a number of occasions his hostility to the independent press by insulting reporters for asking questions about his health, and persecuting media organizations and independent journalists for their supposed bias. He has also accused individual journalists and media organizations of conspiring to bring down his regime, and orchestrated the shutdown of the free TV and radio services of ABS-CBN network.
Although his spokespersons have denied the “chilling effect” on the media of these acts and statements, their consequences include a decline in critical reporting, and the dominance of the regime narrative on such issues as China’s incursions into the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, the extrajudicial killings in the “drug war,” and the rampant human rights violations.
All the above factors contribute to the failure of the media to provide much-needed analysis and interpretation of events and issues of public concern, and to go beyond the “he-said-she-said” reporting that the Australian documentary filmmaker and journalist John Pilger dismisses as stenography and not journalism. There are exceptions, but they are so very, very few as to escape the attention of much of the mass audience.
Had the media pointed out the urgency of completely shutting the country’s borders, multi-sourcing vaccine sources, adapting a national plan to address the pandemic, and providing displaced workers enough means to survive the worst of the contagion, things could have been different. Focused media attention and analysis could have provoked a critical mass of citizens to demand that the regime explore other alternatives to its knee-jerk recourse to lockdown after lockdown and its punitive approach to the enforcement of health protocols.
In addition to the uncritical acceptance of such problematic precepts as “objectivity” and non-interpretation is the failure among many media practitioners to recognize how important information is, and who apparently think that their responsibility ends once they have quoted the powerful despite the urgency of misinformation and disinformation. Much of their work still consists of reporting in which the claims — no matter how outrageous, absurd, tasteless, and dangerous a prominent government source said about an issue or event — are quoted without analysis, critical discernment, or context.
Among the consequences is the complicity of many practitioners and media organizations in spreading the regime version of events and issues.
An Ateneo School of Government discussion paper that looked into the reasons for the dominance of the regime narrative on the thousands of extrajudicial killings in its dubious “drug war” thus led it to conclude that the anomaly is due to journalism’s conventions.
Missing in its analysis is the role played by such unethical constraints as the multiple and conflicting loyalties and interests of corrupt practitioners. But uncritical adherence to conventions is indeed a major factor in many journalists being no more analytical than their cameras and sound recorders.
Among those conventions is the reliance on the words of the famous, the well-connected, and the powerful as mandated by the news value of prominence, as well as by the mantra of “objectivity.” Observance of the first leads to ignoring the narrative of ordinary folk, while the second results in the absence of context and interpretation, on the argument that by providing background to an issue or event and explaining its meaning, the journalist becomes biased.
This is evident in, for example, much of the media’s reporting that should they be elected President and Vice President, respectively, in 2022, Marcos Junior and Sara Duterte could enter into a “term-sharing” agreement. They did not point out that it would be brazenly unconstitutional, while the absence of any attempt at analysis made it appear that politicians can do whatever they please once they’re in power.
The result of this uncritical, business-as-usual observance of those conventions and such other media failures as the lack of context in many reports is an information crisis in this Information Age — a multiple crises in Philippine governance and what little remains of Philippine democracy
The disengagement of much of the citizenry from active political discourse and activity other than by going to the polls every election day although unarmed with enough information to vote wisely is among the by-products of the media inability, and/or unwillingness to provide their audience not only information on what happened, but even more importantly, why — and what it means to them.
Before the pandemic this state of affairs enabled government to hobble along, secure in the knowledge that mass ignorance serves its interests best. Unfortunately, the inadequacies of the media and their consequences on the democratization process and the way this country is governed before and during the contagion has a price: they have condemned many to needless suffering and even death.