Changing standards

I had dinner last night with Peterson Bergado, an old friend and colleague of mine from my ABS-CBN days. He was in town to attend his niece’s graduation from the University of the Philippines.

Paping, as how we his co-workers call him, is one of those old hands in the Mindanao media community whose passion for the profession and the people it covers and champions is limitless and very much compelling. Personally, I learned much about fieldwork in broadcast journalism from him, with some of those skills still being used by me now despite the fact that I have left that industry five years ago. Aside from our days doing TV news, we both joined the Sumilao March back in 2007, with the belief that documenting the journey of the disenfranchised farmers from Bukidnon would help capture more of the public attention to the plight of farmers in the country and agrarian reform.

St

Giving a briefing to farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon and Calatagan, Batangas on how to address questions from the media. St. Andrew’s School, Paranaque, December 2007. Paping is the guy in yellow next to me.

We rarely see each other these days, despite the fact that we both hail from the City of Golden Friendship, and we usually are both in that city for the Holiday season. I think the last time we saw each other and had a really good conversation was when we met up also at the UP with Philippine Daily Inquirer photographer Rem Zamora – something like six months ago. And so we had a very long conversation last night about how things were doing among fellow journos in our beloved city, the Land of Promise, and journalism in the country in general.

Being that we both worked in TV news before, it would be natural for us to talk about the recent changes in the craft over these past few months. And we both agreed that the industry has had really curious developments, most of which are throwbacks to the old tabloidish form of journalism which had been prevalent in the late 90s.

We both noticed that TV news programs in the country have devolved from focusing on social and political issues of paramount concern to sensationalism and the lives of showbiz personalities. No longer is incisive and investigative journalism exercised in the pursuit and presentation of stories, rather what is lined-up in the programs are those which are prevalently popular, such as celebrities and their antics, politicians and their inanities, and of course blood and gore.

Case in point was the coverage on the three Filipino “drug mules” who were executed in China. We both agree that most of the coverage focused more on the emotional distress that the family of the three convicts were undergoing. Videos of the mother of one of the “mules” wailing was repeatedly used in newscasts as an appeal to emotion to the public and illcit a clamor for condemnation of what the People’s Republic was about to do to three foreigners.

While there were stories on the police efforts to apprehend those who had recruited the three convicts, most news organizations stopped there. There was little or no investigative reportage on the network which recruited those Filipinos (and thousands more) into being drug couriers from the country to other countries abroad. Considering that “mules” are recruited locally and their tickets and baggages provided for by the network which hired them, it is at a glance, easy to deduce that there must be some persons in authority and positions of power and influence, who make the delivery of the drugs from the country to other countries possible. How else would these couriers have the passports, visa, and other travel documents ready for their trips without raising the alarm on what they are carrying? How else would they get their baggage through airport security without being caught? But despite that being a lead into what stories news organizations can pursue, all we saw where sob scenes and appeal to emotions, which in the long run, does not help in detering the recruitment of potential drug mules from a country with over 3 million unemployed citizens.

Mainstream media in the Philippines is probably one of the oldest in East Asia, and if one takes a look at the headlines and stories of the yesteryears, it would seem that the journalists back then had more passion for uncovering facts and figures for their reports instead of merely appealing to the emotions of the public. Anyone looking up the Philippines Free Press website can browse over news articles from yore and see the different quality of stories that Filipino journalists back then produce. True, some may say that the profession has evolved and has done away with cumbersome writing and structure, but can it be called evolution when the exercise of the profession has lost some of its essentials? That, I think, would be more aptly called devolution.

It may seem that the change of standards in Philippine journalism may have little obvious repercussions in the immediate future on society, but its effect would be something more subtle, direct, and longer-lasting than the books, music, movies, and magazines that the people go to for information and trends.

A change in standards in news gathering, evaluation, and presentation would influence not only the viewers of the news program or the channel, but also the policy-makers, personalities and other social figures that the news organization will engage with. And the effect on these individuals translates into their actions and decisions which can affect short-term as well as long-term policies, programs, and advocacies in the country. In the long-run, the average Filipino at the receving end of the process of influence, will ultimately bear in mind and action the consequences of the change of standards in news organizations. If the quality of news media goes down, so does the average mindset of the average citizen.

The important role of news media or journalism in society is no more underscored by the existence of state-controlled media organizations in some of the world’s repressive regimes. In countries like Burma, North Korea, and China, the governments control the news in an effort to have a grip on what the public sentiment should be. On the other end, the United Kingdom’s BBC, though state-owned has enough freedom to have the fiction of independence from the government. However despite its seemingly free practices and broadcast, the BBC, like those organizations in the repressive regimes, is still bound by its charter to promote the best interest of the United Kingdom, and that includes maintaing the quality of English that is spoken in Her Majesty’s territories as well as promoting the best values and traditions of the British (Empire). The BBC, as well those state-owned media organizations in other countries are bound by duties albeit varied, but all crafted to protect, preserve, and promote certain social standards and state of mind which largely depends on what the state would want.

Being that most of the news media in the Philippines is privately-owned, the standards of the news organizations vary from one newsroom to the other and there is (and should be) no body which can exact the observance of quality news gathering, evaluation and presentation. Despite the varying standards, it should be important that news organizations in the country adopt ethical and professional standards based on practices which are socially acceptable locally as well as those which are observed by the international community of journalists. It is sad that while some try hard to go deep into investigative reporting, most delight in the pursuit and practice of tabloid journalism. It seems weird that in the age of new media, social networks, and citizen journalism, the Philippine news media is taking three steps forward but five steps backward.

Oblation

With Paping in one of his visits to the university.

Probably this is the reason why I myself find it difficult to watch TV news programs recently – something which I use to see in those who profess apathy to society. I could not help but be disgusted by the sensationalist lines in the voice-overs, the lead-ins, the crawlers and the downstreams, the icons, and at times, even the news presentor’s pronunciation.

As for Paping, he too is feeling the need to step away from mainstream news reporting due to the change in standards. Despite his commitments to Reuters and GMA, he told me that he now plans to focus more on teaching younger videographers the tools of the trade. He also plans to pursue what we started doing with the Sumilao farmers – video documentaries. His next project he said, will be in an indigenous community in Northeast Mindanao. Although I would be unable to join him on that project, I sure wish it would knock some sense into those who threaten that community’s existence. As to what that community is, will have to be written up in another post.

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