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Reporting the circus

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With only a year before the most crucial Philippine elections in decades, nearly 40 media organizations and 300 journalists and media workers signed on June 17 a pledge to do a better job in reporting the campaign for President, Vice-President, and other national as well as local posts.

The pledge declared that every election “is a reckoning for democracy,” hence the duty of journalists “to provide accurate, reliable and essential information that will empower voters and encourage public discussion and debate.”

The signatories vowed to “put voters and the integrity of the electoral process at the center of (their) reporting” — to depart from the usual media focus on personalities, concentrate on the issues that matter to the citizenry, and make sure that the elections are clean and fair.

As part of the commitment to issue-focused reporting, they also pledged to look into and report on the track records of candidates, check and challenge false information and hate speech, provide the context of whatever events and issues may arise, monitor the independence of the State and other agencies involved in the elections, and encourage and support best practice in journalism.

The pledge basically reiterated the need for journalists to observe in the critical months ahead the professional and ethical standards that enable journalists to discharge the essential duty of truth-telling in behalf of the making of an informed electorate capable of making intelligent choices during elections.

Five months since, however, compliance with the pledge in much of the reporting on the politics of the campaign has been spotty at best. While some media organizations and practitioners have done a yeoman’s job of re-porting the political circus, their work in the context of the huge amounts of airtime and space that have been spent on the coverage of the prelude to the official campaign period in February 2022 has been the exception ra-ther than the rule.

Much of media coverage of what transpired as the Nov. 15 deadline for candidate substitutions came and went was no different from that of past election campaigns.

Glaring enough was the focus on personalities — on Sara Duterte, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., Rodrigo Duterte, Christopher “Bong” Go, etc. — as that much awaited date passed.

The media closely covered what those worthies said and did without pointing out that, as they jumped from this or that “political party” and became their candidates, it had become quite obvious that keeping power and getting it are all that drive this country’s officialdom and pretenders to the Presidential throne.

It took political scientists to point this out and the truth that the groups that call themselves “political parties” have neither program nor principle and are mere vehicles of convenience for the realization of these and other power-seekers’ ambitions.

Neither was any context provided by much of the media reports on the disqualification complaints against Marcos Junior. Instead, they covered the usual caravans and parades, and quoted him and his lawyers as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) granted his appeal for an extension of the period within which he has to answer the complaints.

Only in the social media pages of some commentators were there any attempts at analysis, as it became evident that the Duterte-Marcos Axis has collapsed, and that Marcos’ disqualification in the context of growing doubts over Comelec inde-pendence would be advantageous to the Dutertes’ drive to remain in power at all cost.

Again, only some of the media provided contextual information on the suggestion that because Marcos and Sara Duterte are supposedly leading among the voters’ preferred candidates for President, they could enter into a term-sharing agreement. It could mean Sara Duterte’s completing the last three years of Marcos’s six-year term should they both win in 2022.

A handful of reports said it would be unconstitutional, and cited the provisions of the Constitution mandating separate six-year terms for the President and Vice-President as well as the rules of succession which say that a Vice-President can succeed a President only if he or she can no longer perform the duties of that office.

The rest reported it without that context, which could have led their audiences to mistakenly conclude that once in power, government officials can do whatever they please, including violate the Constitution. The exceptions stood out for the rarity of their dedication to providing the information voters need to prevent their again electing into office the bogus leaders that have made this country the development basket case of Asia.

The three dozen-plus media organizations and 300 journalists and media practitioners that signed the June 17 pledge seem like a lot, but they are not. There are thousands more that did not sign for a number of reasons, among them the different and often conflicting political and economic interests of corporate media that have long prevented the making of a community of shared values; the vast differences in the training of practitioners in the professional and ethical principles of journalism practice; the corruption and patron-client relations between some practitioners and their sources; and the fear factor engendered by the continuing harassment and killing of journalists.

The last has been even more of a media concern during the Duterte regime. Mr. Duterte himself aggravated it. After justifying the killing of journalists in 2016, he proceeded to insult reporters for asking questions about his health, persecuted media organizations and independent journalists for their supposed bias, 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.

His spokespersons have denied the “chilling effect” on the media of these acts and threats. But among their consequences is a decline in critical reporting, and the resulting dominance of the regime narrative on such issues as the extrajudicial killings and human rights violations that characterize its rule.

All the above factors contribute to the failure of the media to go beyond “he-said-she-said” reporting. So few are the exceptions that they escape the attention of much of the mass audience. There is also the uncritical ac-ceptance of such precepts as “objectivity” and non-interpretation that have been drummed into the heads of many practitioners by the journalism schools. The result is a fetish in reporting without analysis, critical discernment or context of the claims, no matter how outrageous, absurd, tasteless and dangerous they are, of this or that prominent, usually government source about an issue or event.

Meanwhile, the conflicting loyalties and interests of corrupt practitioners leads to many journalists’ being no more analytical than their cameras and sound recorders. The subservience of corrupt practitioners to this or that source also contributes to mass disinformation.

The result of the dominance in much of the media of the fear of provoking State retaliation for a critical report and of corrupt and business-as-usual practices is an information crisis — and multiple crises in Philippine governance and what little remains of Philippine democracy.

The failure of the mass of the electorate to vote wisely is among the lethal by-products of the media inability and/or unwillingness to provide their audiences not only with information on what happened, but, even more importantly, why– and what it means to them. Unless things change in the way the media report the circus that politics in this country has become, the consequences to the democratization process and the way this country is governed will condemn many more to needless suffering and even death.

LUIS V. TEODORO is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). www.luisteodoro.com

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