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.

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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.

The future of print: Newspaper crisis in Germany, rising circulation figures in Peru

Koln, Germany; Lima, Peru

Koln, Germany; Lima, Peru

What does the future hold for print journalism?

It depends on where you ask.

In the US, many have already given up hope amid plummeting circulation figures and dwindling advertising revenues. But then, journalism’s two new Js—Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry—did not purchase the Washington Post and the Boston Globe just to lose money.

In Germany, Spiegel reports about a newspaper crisis: Local newspapers in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich “have lost about 30 percent of their readers in the last decade.”

But then you have a tabloid called Trome in Peru, the best-selling Spanish newspaper in the world with nearly 700,000 copies sold daily. The Society of Journalism Businesses of Peru (SEPP) says newspaper circulation in Peru rose to 1.9 million in 2012 from 1.2 million in 2007, according to this report.

Also, a study projects newspaper circulation in Latin America will grow 10 percent in the next three years.

The newspaper might be old, even worn out, challenged continually as it is by every single innovation in mass communication.

But it might be true, what people say: first love—or in this case journalism’s first mass medium—never dies.

Record voter turnout in Malaysia: People alleging poll fraud turn to social media

The ruling party in Malaysia won a slim majority in the May 5 elections, continuing a 56-year rule that many international observers had thought faced a serious threat this year from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party alliance.

But on the night of the elections, many users started tweeting, asking for international attention on allegations of cheating.

Some users took their frustrations to Facebook, with users switching their display photos to black.

But the ruling party, which won a slim majority, is not giving up the social media fight.

Here is a collection of the unrest unfolding on social media on the night of the 2013 Malaysian elections. Click on this Storify link.