Covering themselves: When news people become news makers (Part 1)

First of Three Parts

The hostage-taker, a dismissed policeman, was in a strategic location. He parked the bus in the middle of a wide street, assuring him of a 360-degree view should anyone attempt to come close and rescue the 25 people on board. Then, as night finally crept in, shots rang. “I shot two of the Chinese,” Mendoza told radio anchor Michael Rogas. “If they don’t change the situation, I will finish off even the small ones here.” Seconds later, the phone went dead. The hostage-taker was being interviewed live on radio—for more than an hour already—when he finally snapped and started shooting his hostages. The last straw was when the police arrested his brother, also a policeman who was supposed to help in the negotiations but later, police claimed, just further agitated Mendoza: The hostage-taker saw everything from a TV set inside the bus.

In the end, after eleven grueling hours, the police shot Mendoza dead. But the crisis also left eight Hong Kong tourists dead and an economically unstable country shocked, shattered and humiliated.

Facing international criticism and anger, the Philippine government created a task force to investigate what led to the botched handling of the August 23 hostage-taking. The 81-page report, publicly released on September 20, not only highlighted the lapses of government authorities but also talked about the liabilities of the broadcast media: The coverage, which the hostage-taker saw on TV, included interviews with his brother and other relatives, with the police and the other negotiators, and even footages of how authorities positioned themselves outside the bus. It is interesting to examine the coverage of four news websites, two ran by newspapers and two ran by television stations, of the committee hearings and the investigation report, focusing on what news becomes when news people themselves become news makers.

To be concluded…

 

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Covering themselves: When news people become news makers (Part 2)

Second of Three Parts

The day before the government committee released its investigation report about the hostage-taking, the websites of the country’s two leading newspapers highlighted the debate on whether the report should be released locally first or be submitted to Chinese officials first out of courtesy. The Philippine Star focused on a senator’s comment that Filipinos should have the first look. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also had a similar angle, although it quoted several lawmakers who criticized the “hostage report-taking.”

The news website of TV network GMA7 also talked about the debate on where to release the report first, but it was buried on the last few paragraphs of the main story that quoted a media group saying the government should not make the media as its “scapegoat” in the handling of the hostage crisis. The article’s headline read: “Govt warned vs haling (sic) media to court over hostage tragedy.” ABS-CBN’s news website also uploaded a video clip it aired on its evening newscast accompanied by the script, written in the vernacular, quoting a former senator, now a counsel to the radio station that aired the last live interview with the hostage-taker, saying that the media are not at fault. Former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said: “There is a danger to media here. I think there is an attempt to shift the blame to media coverage.” These articles were uploaded the weekend before the report was to be publicly released.

The four news websites also reported about the release of the investigation’s findings on September 20: Nine government officials, including an undersecretary, the Ombudsman, three police generals and a city mayor, as well as two radio journalists were found liable. Three television stations were also mentioned to have violated codes of ethics. The articles from the four websites were all factual. But what was interesting was the range of side bars or off-shoots of the main story that the websites also published.

Two media groups—the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines and the National Press Club—aired concerns about the inclusion of the media in the list of those likely to be charged. The Inquirer posted an article with this headline: “Media group warns against suing journalists over hostage-taking fiasco.” GMA7 had this story: “Aquino urged to ‘spare’ media from hostage raps.” ABS-CBN2 had this side bar: “IIRC report sends ‘chilling effect’ to the media.”

To be concluded…


Covering themselves: When news people become news makers (Part 3)

Last of Three Parts

The criticisms against their handling of the hostage-taking supposedly prompted media organizations to reflect. GMA7 released its own guidelines on how to cover hostage events. But ABS-CBN had a harder stance—its vice president for news even said in an interview that the hostage-taker was not watching their coverage anyway. This stance is, consciously or not, manifested in the subsequent coverage of the probe. The blame and the criticisms were focused on the broadcast media, and even print journalists did not mince words, especially in their blogs and facebook posts, in condemning the excesses of the live coverage of the hostage-taking. It is not surprising that the television media would be more defensive than the print media in covering the investigation. Thus, in looking at the same sets of comments, Inquirer would say a media group “warns” against suing journalists, GMA7 would say a group “urged” the president to spare the media, while ABS-CBN2 would say the report sent a “chilling effect.” They were reporting about essentially the same things—but differently.

In covering government and policy issues, the media usually run sidebars about the sentiments of the general public in the form of polls or man-on-the-street interviews. These have not been done to understand the public’s sentiment about the media’s role in the bungled negotiation. This is not to say that opinion polls or MOS interviews accurately reflect public opinion. They don’t. This is to demonstrate, however, how the media selectively use “reporting” tools depending on the issues involved.

The articles should have acknowledged that the networks were among those named in the report. In qualitative research, this is referred to as the concept of “reflexivity” where the researchers acknowledge they are also research tools and their biases could have influenced the data. The Inquirer breaking story, for instance, said that the “media has been criticized for its handling of its coverage, particularly the TV networks, which carried live reports.” But the articles did not remind readers that the hostage-taker was on a series of live radio interviews, a possible reason authorities could not get through his cell phone. The broadcast stations were willing to provide avenues for negotiation—but they were not trained to be one and having a mediator, instead of a direct contact between a government negotiator and the hostage-taker, delayed instead of sped up the process. The news organizations should have also sought the government’s comment on how the investigation report affected press freedom as what the media groups appeared to be claiming. This would demonstrate that the broadcast media are not making the government, on the other hand, their “scapegoat” for their “excesses.”

These events have put the media in an awkward position—they were covering themselves in a government-led probe. That is legitimate news. That is newsworthy by the media’s own parameters. But covering themselves presents a likely conflict of interest. The urge to defend themselves is tempting—they screen, package and deliver the information anyway. There is a need to clarify rules and boundaries when the news media cover themselves, especially because with the patterns of media ownership now this is bound to happen more often.

It is not only a question of professionalism and accountability to the public the media claim to serve. What they report—and how—can affect policy that ultimately affects the public. They should not use their power under the guise of ordinary reportage to shape policy to suit their whims. They should not abuse their power under the guise of routine coverage just to pressure the government on issues—and investigations—when their personal interests are on the line.

Quote of the Day

“(What) is especially ominous for the future of journalism is that some advertising has shifted not from traditional news media to their satellite news websites, but has leapfrogged instead to other parts of the Web which have nothing to do with journalism. In particular, local newspaper classified advertising has been partly redirected to advertising-only websites, like craigslist and net.lettings.co.uk. Advertising, in other words, is beginning to be decoupled from news production: the total subsidy for journalism, both online and offline, is declining.”

From: Curran, J. (2010). The Future of Journalism. Journalism Studies, 11(4), 464-476.

 

Put the big names on TV

Former vice president Noli De Castro returns on Monday to the primetime news program that served as the perfect springboard for his short-lived political career. He is showing up with Korina Sanchez who is also fresh from a year-long hiatus from daily-grind news work for her husband’s ill-fated vice presidential bid. De Castro and Sanchez are joining former congressman Ted Failon in ABS-CBN’s flagship news program TV Patrol.

It is surely a dream team. ABS-CBN is bringing together three of the biggest names in local broadcasting. Not everyone is happy, though. These celebrities are tainted by their past and present political links—and news is supposedly objective.

Well, news has never been objective. It is not usually overtly subjective, either. Some are not comfortable with the idea of hearing political news from an ex-future president or from the wife of a possible 2016 presidential bet.

This is a casting coup indeed—a move obviously motivated by a desire to catch up in the ratings game considering a serious threat from a former network employee. Put the big names on TV and viewers will be glued. It is not the quality of news coverage that matters. This unfortunately shows a low regard for the audience—a move that does not speak well of the profession people depend on for information. But if it is true that viewers are obsessed with celebrities than with substance, who is to blame, then?

Welcome

This is my first attempt at blogging. I was a newspaper reporter. I am also a student. One of my research projects found that newspaper and website journalists differ not only in how they perceive the future of the newspaper but also in their attitudes toward online news. It is not surprising, therefore, that few newspaper journalists maintain blogs. But I am starting this blog not as a newspaper journalist but as a student. I am trying to learn blogging.

First realization: This is cool!