How you can help reduce it
Exclusive by Raïssa Robles
When information that you obtain from mass media like newspapers, radio or TV is slanted a certain way because a politician or a company gave money to make it come out that way, then the public is shortchanged.
Democracy is distorted.
The way it’s supposed to work is that in a democracy, the mass media help the public make sense of what American psychologist William James called this “blooming, buzzing confusion” that is our world.
Before Twitter and Facebook and blogs came along, many Filipinos tracked events in the Philippines through newspapers, TV and radio.
The role of a reporter is to sense changes in what’s happening from day to day and year to year, to notice trends and to report these as accurately as possible. Newspapers, filled with such reports, serve as guides to the public by highlighting what’s important in the placement of the story on the page and the size of the head or title. The most important story — in the judgment of the newspaper’s editors – is always placed above the fold.
When a reporter or editor succumbs to a bribe or when a newspaper starts selling editorial space to hawk a product or a person, then this sabotages the entire concept of what a newspaper is about. The reading public is misled into thinking that something is very important – when in truth it is not. It just looks important because someone paid for it to be so.
The same thing happens when radio and TV sell airtime in such a way that the public is made to think it is listening to news and not to a political advertisement.
When media misleads
Let me illustrate with examples. In Chay Florentino-Hofileña’s book, “News for Sale: The Corruption & Commercialization of the Philippine Media”, she noted the very disturbing trend of radio and TV networks offering multi-million pesos “commercial packages” to political candidates in the 1998, 2001 and 2004 presidential polls.
For instance, Chay quoted veteran ad executive Yolanda Ong as saying that a P20 million package offered to the late presidential candidate Raul Roco by a radio network in the 2004 polls would have provided him not only radio ads but also thrown in three weekly interviews, favorable spot reports and a reporter “embedded” in his campaign. Chay quoted Ong as saying she rejected the deal.
But what’s wrong with that? A radio network is after all a commercial venture and has to earn to remain viable.
The radio ads are not a problem but the add-ons like the embedded reporter and interviews with soft-ball questions are problematic because they blur the distinction between advertising and news reporting.
Such arrangements also place less moneyed candidates at a gross disadvantage. Candidates who may be better-qualified but who don’t have as much money would have less chances of being heard by the public. And that does the voting public a disservice.
In addition, reporters could also be discouraged from digging too deep into the backgrounds of political candidates who have contracted such commercial arrangements with the newspapers, radio and TV networks they work for.
Can the Commission on Elections require both mass media and political candidates to make disclosures of such commercial arrangements as they happen and not wait for months after the elections?
Consumers of news are entitled to know whether they are listening to news or to paid political propaganda.
Another trend that Chay noted was the oftentimes secret commercial contracting of entertainment and lifestyle reporters as well as columnists in order to write favorably about certain political candidates.
We have no law banning such arrangements. But they are highly unethical. The least that contracted reporters can do is to disclose such arrangements. And is this covered by VAT? I wonder. Because every writing assignment I do with local media is covered by VAT.
There is also no law against celebrities endorsing political candidates. But they ought to disclose to their fans how much they were paid for it; if they are doing it out of personal conviction or if it is a purely commercial transaction.
Profiles and features on candidates, their spouses or children are sometimes assigned to reporters without the latter knowing that this is part of the advertising package that a candidate arranged with a newspaper or TV network. I think reporters have the right to know this and should have no restrictions on what pertinent information they can truthfully unearth and report about the candidate . Rival candidates ought to get the same space and treatment so the public can be informed as well about them.
Whenever I write about a candidate I make sure to also find out everything I can about him, especially those parts of his life he has been trying to downplay or conceal – a mistress, ill-gotten wealth, a vice or a previous questionable transaction.
In this connection, let me mention to you an interesting thing about the campaign of Congressman Jack Enrile for senator. He actually began campaigning a year ago last November when he met with some prominent women in media. It’s good that Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Rina Jimenez-David wrote about the ladies’ luncheon with Enrile. You can read about Enrile’s early wooing of the media by clicking here.
Jack Enrile’s handlers must have told him – don’t deny your shady past but blame it on youthful excesses and say you are now a reformed husband, father and grandfather. By next year, his camp can simply shrug off the same issues as “old hat” and refuse to entertain questions on the matter any further.
I wonder if this tactic will work for Jack Enrile and if media men will have the guts to keep asking Enrile about it and digging up more facts about it.
If you see stories on Enrile and the other senatorial candidates between now and the May elections – especially in the newspapers’ lifestyle and entertainment sections and on magazine covers – please take the time to analyze the stories and see whether these praise the subjects too much. Examine the adjectives used to describe the candidates. See whether the stories give a balanced and fair view of the subjects.
I’m not saying that if such stories come out in these venues you could assume they are paid for. What I’m saying is that politicians will naturally be targeting these venues. It will be a testament to the skill of the editors and writers to portray candidates in such a way that readers gain real insight into their character, and not just publish articles showing off the candidates’ beautiful homes, their possessions, pictures of their families, their dogs or gardens.
Writing about celebrities is very much a part of journalism. Personally, I like reading the in-depth stories of “Yes” magazine, whose editor-in-chief is veteran journalist Jo-Ann Maglipon and whose executive editor is long-time journalist-poet-screenwriter Pete Lacaba.
What do you do when you spot a story in the media that’s worded like a “praise release” for a candidate?
Before the 2010 presidential polls, there was nothing much that ordinary consumers of news could do about propaganda foisted as news on the public.
But now, with the rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as blogs, you and I can actually have our say on this matter.
Remember it was the netizens in social networking sites who first spotted Senator Vicente Sotto’s plagiarism. And kept spotting it again and again. That encounter with social media flustered Sotto so much he made the additional mistake of revealing the impending Cybercrime Bill, tipping off the public to that outrageous law’s existence
That was merely the initial flexing of netizens’ muscles.
I can hardly wait to see what role the Internet and social media will play in next year’s elections. Will they add to confusion or help bring the voice of the public to the field of mass media?
I foresee people on Facebook and Twitter and commenters on this site looking out for media men and women who have secretly hired out their services to politicians. And of course, there’ll be shady operators on the Internet who will offer their services and media packages to political candidates.