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.

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