Monday, September 7, 2009

Watching the Watchman & Media Accountability

Agenda For Hope By Agustin Martin G. Rodriguez

By now, after the Watchmen film has made its theatrical and DVD rounds, Juvenal’s haunting question, "Who watches the Watchmen," should be back in currency. It is a question that can be posed to the institutions of Philippine journalism as much as it can be posed to costumed vigilantes.
Those of us who lived through the last days of martial law know how guerrilla journalism was an essential element in the corrosion of Marcos’s grip over Philippine society. Because journalists were able to leak the truth regarding the war in Mindanao, the terrible violations of the basic rights of the people, the (under)mining of the Philippine economy by his family and cronies, the upsurge of anger and the growing resistance awakened by the assassination of Ninoy and the subversion of the snap elections, the general populace was able to cultivate its indignation, gather its courage, and take part in the events the led to EDSA. These same but freer institutions of journalism investigated the unaccounted riches, the jueteng connections, the midnight cabinet decisions, and the unabashed cronyism of another corrupt president, and led to his downfall. It continues to expose the follies and misdemeanors of this present administration and its allies.
I doubt if anyone who values our beleaguered democracy does not value the role of the press as one of the primary watchdogs of our democracy. Without it, the predatory elite who rule our country will go their merry way with full impunity. At least with the press hounding them, they have to give a thought to trying to cover their tracks. Even the present set of politicians, with all their sense of impunity, must show a semblance of accountability for their acts of corruption and abuses of power. This is the reason why so many journalists have been killed in the last 10 years.
However, despite their vital role in our democracy, we are also aware that they too need to be held accountable for their practices. One only need look at the yellow journalism that adorns our sidewalks to realize how journalists could destroy reputations and violate people’s privacy with the kind of reporting that aims to cheaply titillate the public’s imagination. Or one can tune in to a random AM station and hear commentators ranting freely against some government agency regarding some issue on which they have not done their full investigation. Television too is replete with such careless journalism. There are TV investigation shows where, without any apology for the violation of people’s rights to a fair hearing, they barge into alleged abusive officials’ offices or criminals’ homes to present a hasty conclusion about their guilt. People’s lives could be destroyed in an hour’s showing based on less than a week’s worth of sloppy snooping.
When the media behave badly, who reports on them? In a recent paper written for the Loyola Schools’ Agenda for Hope project entitled "Exacting Accountability from the Media: Positive Signs," academic and journalist Chay Florentino Hofileña noted that there is a growing awareness among the news outlets that their credibility is dropping. She notes a Pulse Asia Survey of 2004 where television had a 67%, radio 20%, and newspapers 5% credibility rating. She attributes the higher TV rating to the perception that TV interviewees are "aired as they speak, with little or no editing or misinterpretation," unlike in newspapers where they are misquoted and misinterpreted. Radio suffers from its low ratings because of its sensationalist reporting and because its reporters are perceived to be corruptible. Becoming aware of these issues regarding their credibility, media have made some steps toward self-regulation.
One major step is the formulation of a code of ethics by some major media organizations like GMA-7, ABS-CBN, and thePhilippine Daily Inquirer (PDI). These codes of ethics, notes Hofileña, "reflect a desire to uphold journalistic standards even in tough situations." They are still considered works in progress, and have not been made public, but they have already been used to sanction media personnel who have violated the most basic principles of these codes. For instance, Ces Drilon was suspended for her Abu Sayaf fiasco.
Hofileña also notes that PDI has set up a reader’s advocate position "to provide readers a venue for voicing complaints and dissatisfaction with the paper’s stories or coverage." The advocate is like the reader’s voice in the newsroom to be the "counter-weight to the otherwise exclusive powers of editors and reporters to define the news agenda." Lorna Kalaw Tirol, the first and so far only reader’s advocate, was able to bring cases against writers who used their columns to make money or as platforms to air their homophobia. Unfortunately, she has resigned from her position and it remains unfilled to this day.
Perhaps, an even more significant sign of hope for increasing media accountability is the engagement of citizen journalists in reporting the news and the practice of civic journalism by local newspapers. With citizen journalists, media outlets open avenues for the input of ordinary citizens in important events such as the elections when ABS-CBN opened its newsrooms to citizen reports. The local press also practices a different kind of journalism in which they dialogue with communities to surface their concerns and help them define solutions to their issues. For instance, journalists in Palawan and Mindanao act as facilitators for public reflections and write as advocates for these communities’ concerns. Hofileña says, "Because citizens are involved in the coverage of events that matter in public life through citizen journalism, they feel a stronger connection with the media. And because journalists, through their practice of public or civic journalism, become more involved in issues and problems that concern communities and ordinary citizens, their stories resonate more with their readers."
Finally, there are the examples of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and Newsbreak, which are news groups put up by journalists who wish to practice journalism according to its highest standards. These groups have been able to raise funding independently, which allows them to genuinely pursue stories without having to prioritize sales or the concerns of their patrons. In these days of 24-hour news TV and Internet journalism, where journalists are pressured to keep feeding their news outlets with breaking stories and newspapers have to compete with the Internet to break interesting and sensational news, we are seeing less of the carefully thought-out story and more of the quick flow of images and sound bites that are not framed by deep background research or rounded out by a fuller reflection on the unfolding of events. These independent groups are able to serve the public by offering well-researched and well thought-out pieces because they are not beholden to commercial or vested interests.
These are only tentative beginnings at self-regulation and greater accountability of the media. These attempts must be further pursued because only if the media govern themselves well will they have the integrity to credibly advocate for good governance and expose the ills of those who govern us. Our Watchmen must strengthen these structures that keep them true to their watch. But just as importantly, we the people must find effective ways to remind them constantly of this vocation they have embraced.

Dr. Agustin Martin G. Rodriguez is associate professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at the Ateneo de Manila University

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