FIRST PERSONThis pandemic could be journalism’s pivotal moment
Diola is the editor of Philstar.com and Interaksyon. Her views do not reflect
those of her employer.
NO ONE saw coming a single event that could change journalism literally overnight.
In mid-March last year, the first local signs of what would become a global pandemic forced us to move out of the newsroom into our bedrooms with a laptop, a desk, a lamp and fluctuating wifi signal.
For weeks afterwards, still confined, we pounded away on our keyboards nary restful breaks to hang on to government’s every word. Each could spell the nation’s fate within the next hours. Officials tried to project confidence but fumbled in their haphazard, conflicting pronouncements.
The only thing regular about government’s communications was their irregularity. When the public needed clarity, authorities couldn’t decide whether to call a spade a spade or in this case, a lockdown a lockdown. When guidance was expected, they offered social media theories instead of science. Even the top health honcho tried to waive our understanding of a “second wave.” Decisiveness and compassion were called for but their actions were, as the medical community put it, “extremely slow, numb and deaf.”
Adding to our collective bewilderment were official-looking policy documents that attendees of top-level meetings leaked to nosy Viber chatrooms. Undiscerning users spread them on social media as “breaking news” from their own “sources” as if professional reporters were dilly-dallyers who couldn’t get the word out ahead. Journalism may be the art of verification, but it’s often dismissed in favor of your mom’s friend’s husband’s verified hunch.
Every newsroom was weary. Its members had to set aside whatever concerns arose in their own heads and homes to inform the many. Yet already lengthy days were still dragged out to cover the president’s pre-recorded addresses. He habitually droned on, digressing from the one announcement the whole country awaited — tomorrow’s quarantine classification. The late-night airings were convenient to no one but Malacañang.
It has been said the pandemic exposed structural weaknesses across sectors. Most apparent was how it crippled an already feeble healthcare system. It also unraveled a rapidly rising economy, some corners of which lean on unsustainable buttresses such as remittances and export of labor.
It was no different in the news media where all of us had to reinforce the health beat. Crevices across the practice began to show.
First, covering a pandemic required science journalism, which here has remained an underdeveloped, sidelined craft. Since even well-equipped newsrooms are organized around major government beats for day-to-day reports, the sources we spoke with the most, quoted the most and let dominate the newsfeed were the state’s talking heads. The Philippines unfortunately had no Fauci. We had Duque.
There was hardly a chance for newsrooms to properly brush up on virus R values, hospital levels and procedures of public health emergencies. Independent scientists who could fill the gaps were not used to making time for and speaking with journalists.
The virtual world isn’t the best place to develop new sources either, especially accessible, authoritative voices who can make sense of the stakes given a raging infection of this proportion.
News desks were instead reliant on releases and joint statements of hospitals and medical groups to somehow counter the IATF’s “all’s well” narrative. If we were to judge only by the sky-high approval rating for the administration after the lockdowns, our efforts to cover the pandemic’s stakeholders were grossly insufficient.
Second, we stuck to local interpretations and standards. In holding officials accountable for disparities in the pandemic response, we could use clear new benchmarks. In a country where the bar for governance hangs low, actions of a few mayors who knew what to do in an unprecedented crisis shone against a backdrop of inefficiency, lack of transparency and illiberal approaches.
For the first time in history, national events largely mirrored what was happening globally. For the first time, too, we could identify parallels and contrasts between policies of governments of similar economies. It was a singular opportunity for local journalists to draw from coverage abroad, cite leading subject matter experts, identify policy best practices and demand for the same here. We missed that chance.
Possibly the deepest cracks in the landscape the pandemic made visible were news outfits’ economic and political vulnerabilities. More Filipinos sought the news but revenues slid even for organizations who were in better shape financially. Broadcast behemoth ABS-CBN, a victim of vindictiveness, had to trim regional bureaus when the lower house shut it down. About a dozen newspapers across regions suspended print operations. For some, it looked like the final blow on print media.
With credible news outlets gone and those who tried to keep the lights on struggled to transform digitally, larger swathes of the country turned into news deserts. There, not only were communities less heard from and local governments left unchecked; opinionated radio and social media became the most accessible sources of information.
New revenue models have to fund quality, independent local news that speaks the people’s language, informs neighborhoods and reports from the inside.
While it made clearer existing problems, the pandemic also hastened reforms in news delivery and presentation that were long overdue.
The sudden surge in online traffic meant audiences, more than ever, relied on the newest bits of information to decide whether to grab essentials from the supermarket, head out to work the next day or enroll their kids for the school year. Because of the demand, we saw more news outlets produce fact checks, FAQs, explainers and infographics across platforms.
The mini-pivots to easily digestible formats and news-you-can-use showed that it was possible to sustain public service journalism that addresses urgent information needs of communities.
Resources thinned and our sights were limited to what we could see online, but news teams who were willing to listen to and collaborate with audiences knew where to look, which stories to tell, which questions to answer and which practices to abandon (such as tweeting Duterte’s words in verbatim without challenging his claims).
This pandemic humbled us. It did make us feel crucial as second frontliners in the first months of the pandemic, but we eventually saw how easily consumers who settled into new realities needed — for their own sanity — to turn away from a distressing news cycle.
We’re journalists, we don’t have that luxury. What we can do though as we keep exposing wrongs, we can reimagine the way we do so. How do we lift stories and paint possibilities? To “build back better” is the next cliché but it’s no less needed. It should be true, too, for our profession.