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.

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 effects of media effects research

The comprehensive examination at the Missouri School of Journalism is a nerve-racking but fun process. For several weeks I had to read about 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books from five subject areas. These reading lists were developed in consultation with my dissertation committee members.

Then, for five days spread in just two weeks, I had to take five four-hour closed-door, closed-book, no-internet, no-contact-with-the-outside-world exams, with just me, an old PC provided by the department, and a few sheets of scratch paper inside the window-less room. You never get to know the exact exam question until that day you are locked into that room.

Now that I have successfully defended my comps—yes, we also have an oral defense for the comprehensive exams—I am uploading some of my answers. The following abridged version comes from my first exam—one of the four questions I had to answer for my mass communication theory test. I was asked to discuss the issue with media effects research.

If I got anything wrong, please consider I was writing this from memory (away from my books and notes), within a four-hour deadline (I was to answer three more questions), and without immediate access to donuts, chocolates, or pad thai that could have inspired me to do much better.

 

The Missouri School of Journalism

The Missouri School of Journalism

The field of mass communication research has been dominated by studies on media effects. For instance, most accounts of the history of mass communication research tend to organize periods based on paradigms about the effects media have on audiences, from the magic bullet era, to limited effects, to the so-called return to powerful effects (e.g. Klapper, 1960; Noelle-Neumann, 1991). This focus on the effects of the media is traced back to the earliest mass communication studies, when scholars and policy makers were concerned about the adverse effects the media exert on those exposed to them. For example, the Payne Fund studies in 1929 looked at the effects of sex and violence in the movies on children. Cantril (1938) studied the mass hysteria triggered by the radio broadcast War of the Worlds. The Second World War brought attention to the power of propaganda and the process of persuasion, prompting the Hovland studies in 1948. These studies, and those they spawned in later years, are supported by the valid rationale that we should be concerned with how media messages influence audiences.

However, while media effects research have contributed to much of what we now know about the media, this tradition misses the big picture. McLeod, Kosicki and Pan (1996) said media effects research is focused on three main aspects: the audience, influences on the audience, and the sources of these influences (e.g. particular medium, content). An important, but missing, piece, is the process by which these influences come about. Thus, media effects research have been critiqued by many other traditions. Critical cultural theorists found media effects research to have ignored important power relations that provide the context to why particular effects are more prevalent, and preferred, than others. The focus is skewed toward the individual, ignoring the fact that individuals exist within norms and traditions shaped and subscribed to by groups. Indeed, Shoemaker and Reese (1996) argued that this preoccupation with individuals among American scholars has cultural roots, the American society being dominated by ideologies such as capitalism which celebrates individualism and competition. Even behavioral and quantitative scholars have found media effects research wanting. They argued that even within the paradigm is a disagreement in how media effects are characterized. Several schisms exist: is it micro or macro, cumulative or non cumulative, direct or conditional, short term or long term, based on alteration or stabilization (McLeod et. al 1996)?  I argue that this lack of agreement and consistency in findings from studies on media effects stems from the fragmented manner in how the mass communication process has been studied. The preoccupation to finding effects has overlooked the investigation of the overall process that brings about these effects.

First, media effects research has conceptualized “effect” as change (Lang & Ewoldsen, 2010; McLeod et. al, 1996). Thus, most media effects studies have been biased for finding change, for change is easier to observe (McLeod et. al., 1996). The plausibility that sometimes, and for some people, the effect of the media is protection from attitude change, or what we might call reinforcement, is insufficiently explored. This bias for change has become ingrained in the academic culture, with journal publications preferring articles that reject the null hypothesis of finding no-change.

Second, media effects research have been preoccupied with short-term effects. Lang and Ewoldsen (2010) argued that the use of the word “effects” connotes a short-term duration, which again is also easier to measure. This preoccupation on short-term effects, which oftentimes are found to be minute in magnitude, misses the plausibility that media processes unfold over time, that the actual “effect” is not exerted upon exposure to media and messages, but rather it unfolds with the process of constant, repeated exposure.

Third, the idea that something has an effect on someone presents a view of the communication process as a linear process, when it is a dynamic process. This argument is particularly relevant in today’s complex media environment. Those who use the media no longer wait for content to be passed on to them. They seek content. If they don’t find what they want, they can create their own content. Aggregating existing content, then melding them with their own content, is a different process from the usual linear who-says-what-in-which-channel-with-what-effect model that started media effects research. It is a different process that most likely culminates with a different type of effect. In order to understand this effect, we have to understand and explain the process.

Finally, media effects research usually conceptualizes media users as passive receivers of messages. Talking about effects—and effects only—and ignoring media processes supports the conceptualization of a passive audience, something researchers have found to be unsupported.

I argue that the problem with media effects research is not the focus on media effects, but the focus on media effects only. First, mass communication research does not yet devote equal attention to message production, or to the study of the processes that lead to messages that we suppose to exert effects. For example, Tewksbury and Scheufele (2009) classified framing research into frame-building and frame-setting, and most framing studies have been concerned with frame-setting, or how frames in communication (e.g. Druckman, 2001), those that are contained in media messages, affect individuals who process them. Second, we have seen very few attempts to consolidate the often fragmented studies on media effects. Lang and Ewoldsen (2010) pointed out that the marginal short-term effects different isolated studies have found might not be marginal at all, for if these short-term effects, tiny as they are, are found consistently across different media in experiments and surveys across different times and places, then they should trigger the suspicion that media effects are rather cumulative, owing their “effect” from consistency and repetition. This is more difficult to measure, but it brings us closer to what we are supposed to be looking for. I argue that media and content indeed have effects. They exist. We have empirically observed them. We have measured them in our surveys and experiments. But media effects alone do not define mass communication. Effects are outcomes of a dynamic, complex and linear process. Studying media effects is only one path, not the only path, to shedding light on complex mass communication processes.

The other side of sensationalism

Note. This is from a presentation I did in February 2005 at the University of the Philippines. My thoughts were very simple, if not naive, but they might be of use to some. If not, this might still be a better use of your 5 minutes instead of playing angry birds.

There is probably a correlation between reading tabloids and watching television news programs and believing that the average Pinoy is a war-freak. If you monitor the news, there is no way you can escape crime stories. Some areas in the metropolis have even acquired the reputation of being crime capitals.  That is, if you walk on a certain street, you’ll probably end up with a knife on your back.

Perhaps people are interested in these stories because some of them had fallen preys to street robbers themselves.  Or they are also concerned with their own safety.  But also maybe because the video clips are entertaining: real people slapping real suspects. Or the headlines are printed in the largest font size possible that it’s impossible not to read them even if you were looking at a newsstand from a bus.

Is it the story?  Or the way the story is told?

No doubt, crime sells.  It is a tested formula to increase readership or improve ratings. And since newspapers and broadcast companies are businesses, ratings and circulation matter. So we see tabloids with screaming headlines about murders and rape cases.  And the victims are not just stabbed or shot, they are tinarakan, grinipuhan or tinadtad ng bala. Newsreaders don’t just read.  They scream at us—and we enjoy it.

Many crime stories are legitimate stories.  People need to know that there is a serial killer in a particular area.  But most often violence is presented like entertainment—when it should be taken seriously.

It is not surprising that the news media is rightly accused of sensationalism. But while there is a tendency to exaggerate crime stories, there is also the risk of undervaluing many of them. Those harping on media sensationalism miss this other side.

A college student is killed when he refused to give his cell phone.  Many would just treat it as an ordinary story.  But the student will be graduating a few months from now.  He had big dreams.  And he is not the first victim on that street.  You call the barangay hall and officials tell you the street is notorious for street crimes.  It has no streetlights.

Then you are giving your readers not only what they want, but what they need to know.  You give the story the importance it deserves.  You do not only report about violence but you are helping a community by calling attention to an otherwise simple problem.

We bombard viewers with images of violence without providing context and they miss the whole point.  Readers and viewers will just dismiss the story as just another story about guns and dead people and so let’s just move on to thinking about Angel Locsin’s lovelife.

Not that I am underestimating news consumers.  I am just recognizing the power of the media.

Crime stories are important.  But they should serve better purposes than just attracting readers or viewers.

Reported accurately, complete with context and given the proper importance, crime stories will not only entertain but also empower readers.

Quote of the Day

“When politicians can predict confidently which events and comments will ring reportorial bells, media professionals are deprived of opportunities to exercise their own judgment.”


Lifted from Gurevitch, M., & Blumler, J. (1990). Political communication systems and democratic values. In J. Lichtenberg (Ed.), Democracy and the mass media (pp. 24-35). New York: Cambridge University Press.