Media Governance, Media in Governance: Bad News, Good News

Island Workshop on Media’s Role in Governance
03 December 2004         The Linden Suites, San Miguel Avenue, Ortigas Center, Pasig City

by: Red Batario

I am not going to bore you with the details.  We all know what’s wrong with governance in our country and what ails our media.

I will not talk to you about the flaws of the political system, nor the embarrassing exercise called the elections.  Nor will I discuss the superficiality of the media and their failure to fulfill their obligation to foster effective public life.

We have time and again pilloried the press for its failings, ranting against its biases and propensity for the sensational rather than the sublime.

Those of us in civil society often are aghast when our advocacies are ignored, our press conferences barely covered when we invite reporters to come only for lunch and then expect them to write in-depth.

Those of us in government expect media to focus only on glorious achievements and to gloss over ineptitude and wrongdoing.  Come election time elective officials go on a media buying spree.

The 2004 edition of the book News for Sale: The Corruption and Commercialization of the Philippine Media, points out that “over the decades, media corruption has become part and parcel of day-to-day political life.  In the 1950s, politicians and business people paid off journalists with cash.

By the 1960s and 70s, such payoffs had become an integral part of the regular news beats.  In the 1980s, the practice continued, with PRs or public relations officers and other go-betweens being hired by politicians to deal directly with the media and to address their needs.“By the 1990s, attempts to make transactions more discreet were made through the use of automated teller machines for delivering payoffs…In 2004 the advent of political ads may also have given typically under-the-table transactions such as paid-for interviews and access to entertainment shows a legitimate front.”

Those of us in business, through our advertising clout, have steadily eroded the practice of the craft by dictating the shaping of the news agenda through the iniquitous frame of “ratings” especially with regards television.  This becomes rather alarming when we consider that as the public’s mind’s eye, television effectively sets the political agenda: the themes and issues that are repeated in television news coverage become the priorities of the viewers.   The imperatives of the market have made the media predominantly commercial in orientation, using their freedoms to bludgeon each other in the mad race to sell newspapers and radio-television programs.

What about those of us who are in the media business like publishers and broadcast station owners?

Allow me to share with you this anecdote.

During a break in an ethics session for a public journalism workshop conducted by the Center for Community Journalism and Development about two or three years ago, a young female reporter came up to me and said: “Fresh from college, I applied for and got a job with a local radio station as a field reporter.  When I asked the owner how much is the station going to pay me, he said very sternly:  ‘I already gave you your press card, why are you still asking for a salary?’

This brings to mind what Pope John Paul II said in declaring theVatican’s Holy Year Day for Journalists in June 2000: “With its vast and direct influence on public opinion, journalism cannot be guided only by economic forces, profit, and special interest.  It must instead be felt as a mission in a certain sense sacred, carried out in the knowledge that the powerful means of communication have been entrusted to you for the good of all.”

I will not quibble with Vergel Santos, newspaper columnist and media critic who said that “Philippine journalism has come under all sorts of criticism and accusation — corrupt, biased, sensationalist, tasteless, profit-hungry, incompetent, graceless, un-grammatical and so on. As surely as one can find instances in point, one would also find redeeming qualities in the practice.  Still, one would be hard put disputing the observation that in general the practice is bad.  If Philippine journalists were tested for their understanding of their own profession and for the ethics, attitudes, aptitude, and skills demanded by it, enough of them would surely prove the critics rights.”

And, not without some levity, some reporters would readily note that journalists choose their profession because of the strength of their verbal skills (writing and interviewing) not because of any quantitative expertise.  Some would even admit to a fear of numbers that detracts from the coverage of development projects and policies that impact on governance especially at the local level.

We want the media on our side but only when we can influence them to articulate our own agenda.  We damn the media for their sensationalist tendencies and yet continue to drive the ratings up by patronizing shows that dumb us.

We abhor the corruption that erodes the very purpose of journalism and yet will not hesitate to pass the envelope to get a good press or to ensure that the story carries our spin.

So who really cares about good journalism?  We even murder journalists who do or do not do their jobs.  In case we are not reminded enough, the number of journalists killed in the Philippines since 1986 stands at 59 — 10 have been killed in 2004 alone — according to the figures of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.  In a statement that the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists hopes to be published as a pooled editorial about the killings, it says: “There is not one factor that will break this tragic pattern of press attacks.  The lack of understanding of the role of the press plays its part in this situation as the poor appreciation for the value of free expression so strongly protected by the Constitution.  Sadly, journalists themselves show this weakness, tainting the practice with lack of professional discipline and responsibility, contributing their excess and abuse to the tension and confusion that sparks violence.”

Should we care enough to re-examine, together with journalists, the media’s role in the complex landscape of governance and democracy to provide opportunities for informed debate to take place not just in the halls of Congress or in conferences like this but among citizens over issues that are most important to them?  We should do well to remember that journalism “exists in a social context.  Citizens and societies depend, out of necessity, on accurate and reliable accounting of events to function.”

This is one reason why the Center for Community Journalism and Development has been constantly arguing the case for public journalism that addresses not only the cynicism that pervades most newsrooms but also situates the journalist as catalyst, enabler, facilitator who will chronicle not only problems and difficulties but also important news of hope and success by offering possibilities.

Twenty-five years ago, under nearly similar circumstances such as this, journalists, academics, NGOs, and representatives from government discussed basically the same things and asked the same questions: what should be done to address the issue of corruption in governance…in media…in society.  What areas for reform should be pursued…who should do it…when it should be done.   How do we build a framework for a kind of journalism that does not simply persuade the public that a problem exists but to engage it in a search for solutions?

In March 2004 the 2nd Mindanao Media Summit probed the same issues but with a decidedlyMindanao context especially in relation to peace efforts. It resulted in a covenant called “This Is Our Mindanao.” TheMindanao summit was followed a few months later by the Media Nation conference inManila where editors, reporters, broadcasters, business, government, and civil society gathered to again discuss similar concerns.

The internationally respected editor Harold Evans once said: “The press is a frail vessel for the hopes it is meant to bear.  The best that it can do can never be quite good enough to illuminate…the invisible environment, the complexity of forces and agencies we cannot monitor for ourselves, but which affect all our lives.  A free, cultivated…resourceful and honest press can only try, and if we ever get one it will be interesting to see what it achieves.”

Let us see what all of us — media, civil society, business, and government — can achieve in this light and debunk the joke that we are now referred to by our Southeast Asian neighbors as a very major NATO country…No Action, Talk Only.

Hopefully today we can walk the talk by mapping out some strategic options by exploring possibilities. It would be helpful though to understand journalistic truth as a journey towards understanding that begins with a story and builds over time.  Here are 10 ideas that we can begin with:

  1. Promote a dialogue on issues that can help build consensus on the priorities of public good
  1. Project lessons from partnerships between citizens and governments in addressing governance issues especially those that impact on the Millennium Development Goals
  1. Develop journalism paradigm that looks at the public not merely as audience but as intended outcome
  1. Encourage advertising support for news organizations that promote good journalism
  1. Effect a balance between press freedom and social responsibility; between profit and mission
  1. Form media alliances especially at the local level that will carry the voices of the poor and disenfranchised
  1. Support and encourage the establishment of a guild that would focus on the welfare of journalists throughout thePhilippines
  1. Support and advocate for access to information legislation and other laws that impact on media coverage and citizens’ right to know
  1. Develop a Viewers’ and Listeners’ Bill of Rights that outlines what citizens should expect from radio and television
  1. Strengthen the Philippine Press Council at the national level and Citizen-Press Councils at the local level as a feedback mechanism for newspapers

These are ideas culled from reports, consultations, meetings and workshops with media NGOs, journalists’ groups and associations, individual journalists, government information officers, and civil society organizations that I have just crystallized for further discussion during this forum.

Some of these were extracted from the Current Reality Dialogues conducted over a period of four years by the Center for Community Journalism and Development as part of its workshop series on public journalism.

It is now up to us to use these as a foundation for building a strategy that hopefully will enable us to address some of the more serious media and governance issues facing us today, not only here in Mindanao but in the entire country as well.  The bad news I have already covered in that brief discussion of the state of media in thePhilippines; the good news we will craft together during the rest of the day. This will serve as inputs to the National Forum on Media Governance, Media in Governance inManilaon December 9.

Lastly, we should be reminded that journalism’s aim is not to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; rather, its primary purpose is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.

*Red Batario is the President and Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), a facility for journalists working with communities, citizens and institutions for social change.  He is also freelance journalist contributing to various publications here and abroad.  He conducts workshops on public journalism for media in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia.


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