In defense of today’s newspapers

News about the execution came too late for many newspapers in the Philippines. (Image from The Guardian;  Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

News about the execution came too late for many newspapers in the Philippines. (Image from The Guardian; Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Filpinos rejoiced after Mary Jane Veloso was spared from execution in Indonesia, and then laughed at national newspapers which got their headlines wrong.

Veloso, sentenced to death in Indonesia for drug smuggling, was scheduled to be executed by firing squad early morning Wednesday.

Indonesia proceeded to execute eight death row prisoners but spared Veloso at the last minute. Veloso maintained she did not know about the heroin found in her suitcase.

Filipinos around the world signed online petitions, joined street protests, and participated in night vigils. They woke up to learn about the positive development as well as to read morning papers with wrong headlines.

Facebook teemed with posts ridiculing newspapers’ frontpages. Inquirer’s banner headline read: “Death came before dawn.” Manila Bulletin had: “No delay in execution.” Abante Tonite said: “Paalam Mary Jane (Goodbye Mary Jane).”

Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin managed to update their headlines in their latest editions.

Many social media users were harsh in their criticisms, describing reporters as stupid or sleeping on their jobs.

Inquirer's statement released via Twitter by @Team_Inquirer

Inquirer’s statement released via Twitter by @Team_Inquirer

This post is not to defend the erroneous newspaper headlines, not even that of the Inquirer, where I worked as reporter for six years (although I know for a fact that the Inquirer reporter assigned to monitor the Department of Foreign Affairs briefing was literally not sleeping—she was doing her job as late as 3am).

But this is a good time, I think, for some reflection on what is happening to journalism. This incident, it seems, is about three issues:

  1. This shows the changing expectations of news consumers. Having been socialized into real-time reporting they find online, news consumers appear to expect the same speed from their newspapers. This is, of course, an unreasonable expectation, given the nature of the newspaper medium.

Newspaper issues have to be ready between 9pm and 10pm to allow sufficient time for printing and delivery, which are not quick processes. Newspapers have to reach newsstands early the following morning, as very few buyers wait for a specific paper: Being late means losing out to competition (of course, the case is different when it comes to the subscription market).

From what I know, updates in the past have been made successfully until about 1am, but only for editions distributed within Metro Manila, where the time between printing and distribution is much shorter. But most readers don’t realize this. They also don’t realize that reporters, whose bylines appear with stories, do not write their own headlines. This is why we need media literacy.

  1. Given the changing expectations of news consumers, newspapers should reassess their roles. The nature of the medium limits its capability when it comes to breaking news. Newspapers cannot, and perhaps should no longer, strive to break news all the time. We have online platforms for that. Freed from this expectation, newspapers can channel their strengths into other forms of journalism, where they can remain strong.
  1. Finally, against this backdrop of changing expectations and changing roles, newspapers should also remain true to the traditional standards that guide journalism, at whatever platform. While it is true that newspapers face time constraints, it does not give them an excuse to predict spot news. It does not free them from reporting events as they are. When something has not happened, and there is no certainty as to what would happen next, that’s what should be in the story. And by story, I also mean the headline.

Today’s social media attack on newspapers, I think, is undeserved and uninformed.

But it informs us about how readers’ expectations are changing.

Such information, if used properly, can hopefully also spare newspapers from their projected demise.


21 responses to “In defense of today’s newspapers

  1. Pingback: Social media as news platforms | PROJECT CHIRON (BETA)

  2. We are not questioning the dedication of reporters to their job or assignments…we just reacted on how the news, headlines,etc were presented. U just accept the mistake and never do it again…period.

    • Good point! That’s what news organizations should do. Being an academic not affiliated with any news organization, I think there is something we can learn from what happened, and this is why I blogged about this, primarily for my students and other journalism students.

  3. Don’t remember where I’ve seen it, probably in a movie, where a newspaper editor asked to have 2 different headlines ready. Btw, CNN broke the news just about 2 in the morning. And everybody knew the execution will commence at around that time. So, I don’t know why beating the deadline was more important than accuracy in reporting esp that a person’s life is on the line here. If it were just any other headline, who cares! Just saying.

  4. There’s no shame in reporting news as it happens in real time rather than assuming to be a fact something that has not yet happened. The public apology of PDI was spot on, because there really is no acceptable excuse on this one.

    • I agree. Integrity includes owning up to your mistakes, being transparent with what happened, and making sure it does not happen again.

  5. I think some inquirer journalists have completely lost track of reality. They should stop competing on the basis of time. No newspaper will be able to compete in terms of being the fastest news breaker vs such platforms like twitter and facebook. Kalimutan nyo na yan. It’s about credible news analysis or helping people make sense of the news. Stupid mistakes happen when organisations try to pretend they can be all things to all people.

  6. Why defend??? The headline is plain wrong and inaccurate. At the time the news was written, MJ is still alive. So why write a news saying she died before dawn. No excuses.

    • I agree. The headlines were wrong, including that of the Inquirer. But if you read the article, Inquirer’s story did not actually say MJ had been executed. So I feel it is unfair to fault the reporters (who were not the ones who wrote the wrong headline, by the way). I am not defending the obviously wrong headlines, and their writers should indeed own up to their errors. But I feel that hardworking reporters don’t deserve the name-calling and harsh generalizations that came with the social media criticism. =)

  7. No need to defend media. Understandable that printed newspapers have to be delivered on time else they miss the subscribers.

    However, they are really irresponsible because news should have been based to the actual events and not on what the news reporters have perceived tp happen. They should have been careful to do their job.

    • I agree! The headlines were wrong, period. But aside from calling out the obvious, I think it’s valuable that we learn something from this. Thanks for your input.

  8. That was a guessing game on what should be the most sensational & most attractive headline common to all papers that would grab the most number of buyers in the morning.

    How about the coming boxing event headline winner?

  9. Society is cruel sometimes, I agree. I hope this opens a lot of opportunities for print media to innovate rules while staying traditional. Nonetheless, people should remember that newspapers don’t run on 140 characters.

  10. Reblogged this on Swim like a bee and commented:
    “This shows the changing expectations of news consumers. Having been socialized into real-time reporting they find online, news consumers appear to expect the same speed from their newspapers. This is, of course, an unreasonable expectation, given the nature of the newspaper medium.”

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