Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy? The Bong Revilla Saga and the News Media

It was a meticulous, well-coordinated script, orchestrated down to the tiniest detail, such as what shirt Sen. Bong Revilla would wear on the day he would surrender. It should be white to symbolize purity. Or maybe innocence. It should be imprinted with a Bible verse, so that a predominantly Christian nation would see.

The news media faithfully documented and reported about what was clearly organized for them. They followed the good senator everywhere he went, with reporters reporting even from inside his car. This way, the world got to know about, for example, an inspirational book the good senator’s father had given him on that day, and the words of love and encouragement scribbled on one of its pages.

Of course, the news media might have wondered what the good senator would have worn if their cameras were not around, or how many supporters would have showed up for the vigil if reporters were not invited to cover. The events that happened on the day of his surrender were clearly organized for the sole expectation of being reported, and yet we cannot really fault the media for disseminating information about events that, without them, would not have been real in the first place. For the good senator’s surrender had the makings of a newsworthy event, going by textbook definitions of what constitutes news. Not every day do we get to see a senator being jailed. Human interest is high. It was a logical follow-up to a developing story. And the good senator is a prominent individual. He is a celebrity, famous for being famous.

But some frown on why the media had to report about the most trivial of things, for example his complaints of having to stay in a facility infested with rats and roaches, and yet these reports are provoking important discussions, especially in social media, such as comparing his current plight with those of Yolanda survivors still living in tents seven months after the Haiyan tragedy. These reports let the people who supported him know more about the man they idolize and learn more about the things that the man they elected to represent them considers as his personal tragedies.

Indeed, others can label these news reports as manifestations of sensationalism, or as the news media focusing on drama than on substance, and yet how then do you cover an event orchestrated to be precisely that—more drama than substance? Isn’t this over-the-top news coverage just a comprehensive and accurate representation of an over-the-top publicity event?

An important part of being accurate, however, is offering a complete account. News reports should include how the news media got to know when and where the senator would be on that day. How was the event organized? Who organized the event? Why was the event organized? Were the complaints the good senator had about his detention cell reasonable?

For some, answers to these questions would compromise a journalist’s objectivity. But keeping quiet about these and many other questions is compromising accuracy. A persistent belief, passed along generations of journalists, is that news should be devoid of a journalist’s judgment. But when complaints about a detention facility infinitely better than what many Filipinos (who would have benefited from properly disbursed government funds) call home—complaints meant to elicit public sympathy—go unchallenged in news reports, they only get legitimized. In this case, no judgment is a form of judgment. For when journalists see and know what is wrong but keep silent about it, they not only mock the principle of accuracy. They also perpetuate dishonesty.

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