Bringing the News Back to Where it Belongs: The People

Paper presented at the South East Asian Journalists’ Workshop on Good Urban Governance
06-11 October 2002                The Concorde Hotel, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur
 

by: Red Batario

 Sometime ago I came across a thought-provoking article on the workings and attitude of the present day news media.  Something struck me in that article, a passage attributed to Ervin S. Duggan, president of the US Public Broadcasting Service. 

 Said he: “The idea of journalists that the purpose of the story is the story itself invites a terrible kind of journalistic amorality.  Trying to do the story just for itself invites cynicism.  It doesn’t invite a kind of heroic approach to journalism at all.  It invites compromises and corruptions that deaden the enterprise at its heart.”

 Undoubtedly, Duggan was talking about the American press.  But it struck me nonetheless because he could just as well be talking about the Philippine media.

 But what is at the heart of this journalistic cynicism?  Is it because the rules that govern the news cycle no longer apply?  Is it because uncorroborated stories are now the norm?  Is it because journalism has become so competitive that the idea of stewardship, that we as journalists serve causes higher than ourselves no longer have an honorific cachet?  That the story has become expedient to the demand for speed?  Or is it symptomatic of an unraveling of the social fabric that the news media, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to?

 To give this observation context, however, we must go back a little bit to the heady days of the People Power Revolution in 1986 when Filipinos peacefully threw out a dictator.  It was both a time of remonstrance and rejoicing as a new democratic space suddenly opened up.  The taste of freedom was a giddy experience after years of repression.  With the fall of the Marcos regime, a decade-and-a-half-old system of media controls collapsed in the twinkling of an eye.  Scores of wannabe newspapers, radio and television stations rushed madly into that vacuum.  It was anarchic at best, but people didn’t care one bit.  They loved their news unexpurgated and unbridled. The media were deemed trustworthy and credible.

 Sadly, in many newsrooms it was to become the norm, although it would be unfair to say that the media have not succeeded in focusing public attention on such issues as corruption in governance, environmental degradation, the conflict in the south, etc. In fact, it was the press that catalyzed mass action that eventually led to the downfall of President Joseph Estrada.

 Although freed from state controls, the media were not able to develop their potential to play a watchdog and development role in Philippine society.  The imperatives of the market have made the media predominantly commercial in orientation.  The sense of public service and civic responsibility that was a mark of the anti-Marcos press gave way to crass commercialism as media organizations used their freedoms to outdo rivals in the race to peddle newspapers and television programs.  Intense competition has distorted the conduct of journalism, the content of newspapers, and the programming of radio and television. (Batario, Coronel, de Jesus; Media, Democracy and Development Program, UNDP)

 Such unrelenting commercialization has made it difficult for the media to provide citizens the information that they need to be able to assess government policy, vote wisely and to otherwise perform their responsibilities as citizens. 

 Born of expediency, commercial viability and, more alarmingly, hubris, the practice of journalism could not go anywhere near being heroic.  The Philippine media were at a crossroads of sorts, undecided as to which path to take, even as citizens were beginning to demand information that would help them make sense of what is happening around them.

 A decentralization law, the Local Government Code of 1991, was in its early stage of implementation; people were feeling their way around the effects of devolution on their lives.  At that point citizens groups, more particularly non-government organizations, were testing the waters of popular participation.

 With scarce resources and greater responsibilities, communities needed to understand a host of issues, they needed to see how they could participate in local affairs, they needed to address problems, to make difficult decisions.  To do all that, communities needed information that will help them identify, and begin to solve, their own problems.

 The challenges for the Philippine press were great.  How do journalists determine the track of the news that will lead to a better understanding by citizens of community issues?  Do journalists need to reexamine their role in this kind of environment?  Will they remain in their comfort zone and stand at a distance as communities slowly disconnect from public life?  Will they continue to stand at the sidelines as measures of citizenship like voting and participating in governance are corrupted by political expediency?  Or will they catalyze community action by offering opportunities for discussion and debate?

 These were some of the hard questions that in early 1995 prodded two journalists to reexamine journalism both as craft and principle and how it has contributed, or not, to the determination of democratic development in the Philippines.  These are the very same questions that underscore the need to address the challenges faced by local communities in thePhilippinesas they grapple with the complexities and demands of decentralization and democratization.

 The two journalists (yours truly and my partner, Girlie Sevilla Alvarez, the Deputy Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development and who is sitting there among you) were then doing research on local initiatives and good governance practices for a book we were writing on decentralization.  We were surprised to discover how very little, if any, of the travails and triumphs of local communities have seen print or been aired on radio and television.  It was as if the news media had simply turned their backs on what clearly were stories of success and hope, failures and problems.  More importantly these were stories of people trying to reconnect with public life, of voices saying that they are charting their own destinies and that could have inspired others to do the same.      

 So it was not by accident that the concept of public journalism in thePhilippinesbegan to slowly and painstakingly take root.  It began as modest experiments in local communities to help citizens understand the impact of the news on their lives, how journalism can provide opportunities for community debates to take place, and how they can likewise actively participate in building the news agenda, an agenda that has always been set by journalists in the newsroom.

 Which brings to mind what Daniel Yankelovich said in his book Coming to Public Judgment, allow me to paraphrase him:  “Journalists are expert at agenda setting.  We have so much fun with it that we dash around raising consciousness here, raising consciousness there, then rush on to raise consciousness somewhere else, leaving all previous crises unattended.”

 Public journalism goes beyond mere agenda setting. It is an evolving principle, a philosophy, a framework that encourages and provides a forum for public debate over issues that are most important to citizens and how they can address these.   It also requires that when these public debates do occur, all the voices of the community be heard. 

 It is active in the sense that civic engagement is expected of all citizens and that “urban problems, for example, cannot be solved by news organizations or local elites acting on others’ behalf.  Common problems require common discussion and common solutions.” (Lewis Friedland, National Civic Review)

 An editor in the Visayas in theCentral Philippinesbelieves that public journalism works because the local media every day impact on every aspect of community life.  She said: “Public journalism works well in local communities because members of the media are also looked up to as citizen leaders and are seen as stakeholders in community life.”

 However, journalists are not “civic engineers” whose only role is to build community.  Their main job is to observe and report with a certain degree of detachment.  But public journalism requires that they re-examine that role, that they should challenge communities to seize opportunities for charting their own future.  Public journalism is reengineering what the news media do to shape them into more useful tools for dynamic citizenship.

 But as in any form of change, there is also resistance to public journalism.  Some see it as contributing to the waning of journalistic enterprise.  Other journalists fear it is a reinvention of the Marcos-era “dev-com” method of propagandizing through the news media.  Still others think it is nothing but advocacy journalism that takes up a particular cause.

 The concept is being debated still. 

 But it would do well to remember that in doing public journalism we simply need to hold on to the basics like fairness, accuracy, balance, timeliness, and objectivity, as in the kind of journalism that we are most familiar with.   But then again for good measure, we should throw in such ingredients like stewardship, justice and humanity sautéed with a dollop of ethics and a dash of human values.

 I would like to believe that public journalism goes beyond the Five Ws, and One H. Rather it asks the question, So What?    After I have written the story, so what?  What happens next?  What can citizens do as a result of that story?  What do I care?

 In the Philippine setting, the early experiments in doing public journalism worked within the framework of the So What question:  What citizens can do to reclaim their rightful participation especially in governance to help shape viable and livable communities.  What newspapers and other news media should be doing to capture the different voices of the community.  What avenues for citizen engagement should be explored by journalists.

 Many community journalists around the Philippines have shown that public journalism is worth a try despite the inherent challenges it brings.  One of these is how to tell stories differently and how to focus on the different but interconnected layers of public life.

 Other public journalism initiatives, like in the island of Palawan, actively engaged local communities in the participatory management and preservation of the environment.  A series of community dialogues initiated by the weekly Bandillo ng Palawan resulted in the formation of a citizens’ environment task force to work for the declaration of the Estrella Falls, a majestic cascade located in a remote inland village, as a protected area.    

 In the island of Mindanao, which many of you probably read about as a place of never-ending conflict and mayhem, (nothing could be further from the truth) journalists felt there was little understanding of why those pocket wars keep on erupting. Media attention was focused on conflict alone, viewed from the perspective of the war correspondent, relying most assuredly in the old newsroom adage that if it bleeds, it leads.

 Romy Elusfa, a Cotabato City-based journalist and founding member of the Federation of Reporters for Empowerment and Equality (FREE) Mindanao, said “They (journalists) do not bother to explore and probe the underlying issues, the quest for peace, our efforts at development and how there are other voices out there aside from the spokesmen of the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.”

 When the Headliner, a newspaper published by FREE, a loose, tactical alliance of Mindanao journalists, ventured into public journalism it began with a series of community dialogues to touch base with citizens and find out what they think of the peace process and what they can probably contribute.  The result was the holding of a Candidates’ Forum and Covenant Signing before the May 2001 elections wherein citizens were able to articulate their own views about how government and citizens should work together for peace.  The outcome?  A community-based monitoring and feedback mechanism called the People’s Forum for Sound Governance.

 Headliner, together with several radio stations and a local TV channel opened its pages and airtime to allow citizens to continue the discussion while at the same time providing them a running guide as to when the next forum would be, how they can participate, how they can become involved. 

 Iloilo City is a laid-back urban sprawl in theWestern Visayas. It is grappling with myriad urban problems like drug use, traffic congestion, pollution, squatting and a contentious news media.

 It is also host to a small newspaper called The Visayas Examiner.  The editors and reporters of the newspaper, however, felt that they were just grinding out the news without a sense of how this impacts on the community.  Until people came to their offices to complain about emissions from a nearby hospital’s incinerator. As a result of that visit, the paper sponsored neighborhood roundtable discussions on the effects on people’s health of incinerator emission by bringing in environmental experts to talk with reporters and citizens.

 To the editors’ surprise, demand increased for more discussions and people were asking the paper to put in their ideas and recommendations, this time for addressing local issues such as traffic jams, the relocation of squatters, and preserving the city’s cultural heritage.  The Visayas Examiner responded by expanding its public journalism section to include a series on good urban governance practices to let its readers know that some things in their city also work.  

 I can go on talking to you about this kind of journalism that enables, educates, empowers, liberates, strengthens a sense in leaders and citizens alike that they can solve local problems, and strengthens democracy.  Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I don’t have the whole day to do so.

 Remember, however, that people will always find it a lot easier to criticize the news media for their failings than to take shared responsibility for transforming what is decidedly one of the most central, and critical, institutions in public life.  It is thus crucially important for citizens and leaders of the community alike, whether in government or not, to look at the journalists brave and daring enough to explore new ways of practicing their craft, with less jaundiced, if not kindly, eyes.

 It may be too early at this point to gauge the impact of public journalism on the lives of citizens and journalists; what is important to remember is that first steps to a long journey have been taken.  It will be up to all of us to see that those steps do not falter along the way.  

 

*Mr. Red Batario, is a freelance journalist and Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development in the Philippines. For more information about the Center and his work in the field of public journalism, please feel free to contact him at: redb@pacific.net.ph

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