Why journalists can’t lose in the 2022 elections?


Esguerra is a journalist and an educator. He is a correspondent at
ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC). He also teaches political journalism and media ethics at
the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.  His views do not reflect
those of his employer.


IN OCTOBER last year, I had the privilege of speaking before a forum put together by colleagues from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines. Given leeway on the topic, my presentation centered on what was at stake for the country, including Filipino journalists, in the 2022 elections. In summary, I argued we could not afford to lose here. 

It was not intended to put journalists front and center of the election discourse; nor was it a call to action to support a particular candidate or campaign against another (although there are “journalists” I know who do this either blatantly or surreptitiously). Rather, it was a warning against reneging on our basic responsibilities in an election coverage, and yielding to other content creators whose work is anything but journalistic.

Like the rest of the country, we, too, stand to lose if we allow ourselves —and the public we are supposed to be loyal to — to be swindled by candidates with the best campaign strategy and propaganda machine money can buy. Our role is specific, and rather basic, in a democracy: we inform and in the process, enlighten, educate, and perhaps, not to be presumptuous, promote positive change — all through journalism. 

Journalists though are facing unique challenges today brought about by highly evolved communication platforms that have democratized public discourse, and, at the same time, discourage, manipulate, and even threaten healthy and meaningful conversations.

We no longer dominate that crucial space between the public and politicians, which is unfortunate given the massive propaganda and outright disinformation we’re seeing in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Committed to the truth and loyal to the public, journalists — and I mean the real ones — serve as frontliners providing essential protection to audiences against an epidemic of untruths and virulent disinformation.

It’s our job to examine track records and campaign promises — regardless of the candidate — through coverage and opinion pieces driven primarily by news values and a deep sense of duty and responsibility.

Not long ago, candidates were highly dependent on the press to reach voters, a setup that required “brokers” — campaign or media operators befriending or “fixing” cooperative newsmen — to gain good coverage.

Campaign press releases had to compete with other stories filed in news desks with no certainty of publication or airing because coverage was supposed to be guided by news value as determined by editors. 

This still is the rule today. But media reliance by candidates has been greatly diminished. The emergence of various social media platforms has allowed them to bypass the process and go straight to their target audience, harnessing algorithms and creating perceptions of growing influence, whether real or imagined.

Many candidates are now content creators in full control of the messaging using their own YouTube channels, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok accounts, and Facebook pages.

Lately, we’re seeing so-called “influencers” invading that space traditionally occupied by journalists, and doing work for candidates in the May elections.

Celebrity Toni Gonzaga, for instance, devoted significant episodes in her popular YouTube channel interviewing candidates, including the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was a politician’s dream interview: no hard questions, the host excessively complimentary of the news subject, allowing him to dictate the course of the interview, according him with maximum comfort.

It’s something Marcos Jr., whose family was proven in court to have stolen billions of pesos in people’s money during his father’s iron fist rule, could not expect if he sat down with a journalist. 

Celebrities, it is argued, are not journalists and they don’t really pretend to be one, meaning they are not supposed to be governed by strict ethical standards as journalists are. The attitude is escapist — a convenient excuse — when in fact they arbitrarily assume a journalist’s role in the election campaign discourse, but without the responsibilities they should carry. 

For instance, the issue of transparency and propriety: Do they get paid by politicians, who, in turn, dictate which questions to be asked and the overall flow of the interview? Can they interview a “ninong” (godfather) or “ninang” (godmother) and if so, do they disclose it?

If a journalist did this, he would naturally be accused of bias. But the standard does not necessarily apply to celebrities and influencers, who, by the way, are expected to cash in on political interviews they do. 

Speaking of bias, the term has been grossly overused but often misused. 

In truth, journalists take sides; we are biased for what is right and for who’s telling the truth, and against those seeking to undermine it. 

Between a candidate, whose family was proven in court to have plundered public coffers, and one with no corruption issue, who do you think should respond to questions on corruption? If Leni Robredo, Isko Moreno, or Manny Pacquiao, for example, were a convicted criminal or whose family stole billions of pesos from Filipinos, they should be grilled on these issues and be held accountable as well. There are other issues on which these candidates should be examined.

People online, perhaps emboldened by occasional information on media education and literacy, tend to take “objectivity” to mean fairness and balance. It’s not the case. 

Objectivity refers to the process by which journalists gather and verify information before reporting them. It’s a standard familiar among newsrooms, and the closest our industry can get to the scientific method.

So, in covering the 2022 presidential campaign, journalists shouldn’t hide behind the flimsy excuse of “objectivity” to give certain candidates a free pass, whether in exchange for money or favors, or by sheer fear or incompetence.