Slow news on indigenous peoples’ education

Most of the time, the stories I work on — when I get to work on any of my own — are really just prompted by my wondering about something and asking questions about these things.

The president’s threat to bomb Lumad schools — community-run schools in indigenous peoples’ communities in Mindanao — in July 2017, for example, had been bothering me for months.

Why would you threaten to bomb a school? Why, even without the threat, were these schools and the communities they are in reporting militarization and allegations of abuse by soldiers? What is so wrong in teaching people to read, write, and tend to their crops better?

Several months of thinking it over and of on-and-off online exchanges and interviews led to this piece of “slow news” — Australian journalist John Pilger defines it as stories that take longer to develop, are not tied to the daily grind, and that are rarely reported — that I hope can help explain the Lumad situation better.

An excerpt:

Often set up in what the Department of Education calls Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas that government schools may not be able to reach, the Lumad schools provide lessons in numeracy, literacy and skills like carpentry, sewing and agriculture.

“Don’t fool me. You teach nothing there but socialism and killings,” the president said in July 2017 before the Armed Forces of the Philippines said it would not take the statement as an order.

But indigenous peoples’ education—or the Lumad schools—is not new, nor necessarily a form of rebellion. It requires, however, a shift in perspective that is, in a way, a revolution away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

Full story here

Days after that story came out, but not because of it, residents of Lumad communities in Surigao del Sur left their homes, saying they did not feel safe with soldiers — deployed to the area to guard against the communist New People’s Army — in their communities.

Aside from the allegations of abuse and of the disruption of their daily lives since a military detachment was put up in June, the villagers are still recovering from the murders of indigenous Manobo leaders and the director of a Lumad school in 2015.

The allegations are just the latest in what human rights group Karapatan says is “a systemic, brutal and cruel persecution of an entire community [defending] of their ancestral land.


Datelines and punchlines

The pier in Ormoc City, which is nice but doesn’t really have anything to do with this post. It’s nice, though.

I am not sure how it happened but in the years that I have been working a desk, I have always ended up editing most of the newsroom’s regional stories.

Part of it, I guess, is a bias for community news because one of the first news organizations to give me a shot was based in Cebu and we were encouraged to consider how national news we covered would affect readers in urban centers outside Manila.

I have always believed, but very rarely say, that it is the supposedly small stories (like, for example, the provincial governor visiting a remote island that was finally connected to the power grid) that are actually of significance to the people we supposedly write the news for.

That has translated to being more patient with regional stories, not because the copy can be quite a challenge, but because I may be missing the importance of it for being in Imperial Manila.

Giving stories from the provinces as much prominence (or at least priority on my to-do list) became more difficult when GMA cut its regional staff for business reasons that were above my paygrade but we still made it work.

We picked up stories from MindaNews and other regional news organizations, but the Philippine News Agency* was always my go-to source for stories from the provinces. Maybe they tended to praise the LGU a little much but I was at least sure that the basic information was there.

That has carried over to the newsroom that I work in now and while I am glad that we have more actual regional partners now, I have always believed in PNA as a reliable, if controversy averse, source for stories from the provinces.

That changed this month after the agency made bad calls on two stories (that we know about).

Since the first bad call, when PNA apparently misrepresented statements made at the UN Human Rights Council’s review of the human rights situation in the Philippines and quoted a government official who later said he didn’t say what he reportedly said, we have been wary of relying on PNA reports.

That is really just more of a challenge for us. We have subscriptions to international wire agencies and have counterparts in the newspaper from whom we can sometimes get details and leads.

It may be a bigger problem when the flow of information goes the other way. Regional organizations like the Romblon News Network in Odiongan do not have the resources that we do and its partnership with PNA for national news was supposed to fill that gap.

Other community news organizations in other provinces probably have the same arrangement with the state-run agency or get their stories from the Philippine Information Agency, which performs a similar function.

They can, of course, write the stories themselves from press releases and documents just like we do here. But that takes time away from letting them do what they do best, which is report on what is happening in their own communities.

They can, and will likely have to, keep picking up stories from PNA — to be fair, the agency has apologized for the lapses and has promised to review its reporting process but this isn’t even the first time that the office that handles it has made rookie mistakes — but desk people in the provinces will have to deal with a little more of the nagging doubt that hounds all editors for some time.

That, I feel, is the greater loss in this whole thing, that regional news organizations will also have to worry about the reliability of their national news. Or, they can not worry and unwittingly serve their readers inaccurate news because why would your own government mislead you?

That, I feel, is where Imperial Manila failed the regions again.

* It used to be called Philippines News Agency but it got renamed to Philippine News Agency just as I managed to convince people that this was so.

My guess is also good

Manila Times columnist Katrina Stuart Santiago, in a sober opinion piece posted on Monday, asks interesting questions about the May 31 press conference that has led to tension between President-elect Rodrigo Duterte and the media.


“For example, after hearing Duterte speak of corrupt journalists deserving to die, why didn’t anyone in the media ask him: what about journalists who are not corrupt but are killed anyway? Why didn’t anyone ask him about the case of Gerry Ortega, for example, or the case of the journalists who got killed in the Ampatuan massacre? What is his policy on journalists like them?” she writes.


Media’s failure to do so, she says, “revealed they do not really want him to flesh out his answers, nor do they know how to handle the President-elect.”


I was not at the press conference. I was, in fact, doing off-duty drinking while it was happening. That was followed by heavier drinking because of what Duterte said — or, to be fair, what he reportedly said.
So, as Stuart Santiago certainly did as well, I reviewed the video of the presscon:
The question is asked around the 55:00 mark.


As it turns out, and as I remember from previous viewings of the video, there were attempts to ask follow-up questions, but the reporter who asked the original question was only able to get one in.


The discussion was cut after a few minutes when another person, presumably a reporter, took the microphone to praise Duterte and to throw low key shade on the ghost of broadcaster Jun Pala.


I don’t know Pala, but, as the column reminds us, Duterte was talking about “the kind of reporter that one Jun Pala was.” [Sun.Star Davao EIC Stella Estremera knew him and writes about him here]


Would the reporter have asked about Gerry Ortega or the victims of the Ampatuan massacre? Who knows? The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines did mention them, though, in a statement released soon after the press conference concluded.


In any case, Duterte said at the next press conference that he cannot protect every journalist and that the “crusaders” among them risk death too.


I don’t know how Duterte’s press conferences are organized, but the handful of press briefings I have attended in the past usually have people lining up for their turn at the microphone, or raising their hands to be called. Not all are given a chance to ask — more questions are left unasked than are.


Maybe someone who was going to ask the questions Stuart Santiago wanted asked simply wasn’t called. Who knows?


“Wala kasing moderator then, teh. As in raise your hand, pray to God na tawagin ka,” a reporter who does cover Duterte said when I asked about that.


It seems unfair, then, to attribute malice or ineptness over something that could have just as easily been because of logistics.


She is right, though, that some in the media are not quite sure how to “handle the president-elect”.


“You know, when Duterte said that, medyo natakot yung iba, may chilling effect eh,” another reporter who covers Duterte said, admitting to feeling a little guilty at being shocked by the statement. “Sa second presscon na lumaban ng kaunti,” the reporter added.


Lumaban, of course, in this sense, means asking tougher questions, and not actually challenging people to fistfights or whatever.


With tensions high since before the elections, it is good that Stuart Santiago refuses to shoot from the hip and join the supposed bandwagon to bash Duterte.


It is unfortunate, however, that in doing so, she is also shooting the messengers and furthering the narrative that journalists are simply out to discredit Duterte by “[latching] on to nothing but the controversial bits and pieces, not at all the policy statements and the bigger picture he creates.” Never mind that stories were written and filed about those too.


It is unfortunate that she asks questions about questions and offers only this as an answer: “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Ride 52: Hello, heartbreak

Hello, heartbreak*
Hello, heartbreak*

Last Saturday, I took a series of bus rides to San Marcelino in Zambales to pick up a motorcycle from a bunch of shirtless American retirees. It is not the craziest thing I have ever done but is among the bravest, even discounting the fact that I commuted with a roll of P1,000 bills hidden in an eyeglasses case.

Continue reading “Ride 52: Hello, heartbreak”

Andami Kong Alam: There is no such thing as ‘old journalism’

Philippine International Convention Center. May 2013

When I was a young reporter, I shared a desk at the Senate press office with Amita Legaspi, a reporter for GMA News Online who would become my mentor, friend, and –years later — my office mate.

She basically taught me the ropes of being a reporter, including how to skip meals because stories have to go out no matter what.

The last time that we were on coverage together was for the proclamation of the first batch of senators elected in the 2013 polls.

Right after coverage, she rushed to the hospital because of fatigue. She has been to the hospital several times since then for fatigue and stress-related reasons common to the profession and, because she is a more legit journalist than I am, will probably go to the hospital a few times more.

I mention her out of a sense of gratitude and because there was an article in the latest issue of Esquire Philippines decrying the supposed impending death of journalism.

It was written well, as Esquire articles have to be, but was really pretty much a rehash of the issues Vergel Santos raised in his book “Worse Than Free” and, without Santos’ credibility of having been in the trenches, is really more a boilerplate lamentation on the declining standards in society.

Jonty Cruz’s “Breaking News” opens with complaints everyone has already made about the state of TV news, then, with the sort of sweeping gesture that landlords use to tell their offspring that ‘one day all of this will be yours’, says “TV Patrol’s current state is only a symptom of a greater disease”, before launching into a tirade into how mainstream media is run “by a few old ignorant men.”

All fair points, although nothing really new.

What raised my barely-there eyebrows was this statement:

Today, instead of having a dedicated team of investigative and long-form journalists, they employ savvy social media experts who condense the news into 140 characters. The media today is reactive. They wait on their asses, fingers resting on keyboards as they wait for the next breaking news to drop.

Defensiveness about the profession aside, that is likely an observation by someone who seems to have never been in a working newsroom, or, indeed, has only seen one by way of free Facebook. (I may be wrong, but I have never been in the field with Cruz and know nobody who has — I asked around.)

In the first place, editorial and social media are separate teams. They work together sometimes — in an arrangement that both teams secretly hate — but they are separate entities with different tasks and performance goals, and, for that matter, are nursing a simmering rivalry.

In the second place, news is, by nature, reactive. Reporters do prep work — a quick look at the Twitter accounts of people who work in news will tell you that they lose sleep over “pre-writing” and preparing background information for stories, and that they like to complain about it on social media — but can rarely push out a story unless an actual thing happens.

You can (and should) do all the long-form journalism that you want, but that is still contingent on something actually happening. The basics are still Who, What, Where, When, Why, How — and, if you have time, What now?

I bristled most at the claim that journalists “wait on their asses” because I have had the privilege of working alongside journalists who don’t do that at all. I was lucky (on a professional level, but also because), for example, to watch Patricia Evangelista work with women and kids affected by conflict in Mamasapano earlier this year.

She did a lot of things for her series of stories, but the only time she was sitting on her ass was probably while in the convoy to and from the area. (She smoked a lot more than she sat, certainly.)

But worst, I feel, is the weak-ass exhortation in the end for journalism to not go calmly into the night (it really should be “gently” and “into that good night”, also, but, whatever, at this point) without offering any answers to the unasked “What now?”.

No suggestions were offered, so here are some from me:

  • If you don’t like how news is being presented now, don’t support it. Change the channel or read something else
  • Don’t share stupid stories and only spread ones that you think deserve to be read
  • Read stories and talk to your friends about what you read. Stories are just tools, the real product is the conversations that readers and viewers will have about the issues of the day
  • Support quality journalism that doesn’t rely on advertising. Support quality journalism supported by advertising. Support quality journalism in general
  • Pick up a pen and pound a beat and show us how it’s done

And drop that “Old journalism, real journalism, stood for something that new media will never understand.”

Listen: There is no “old journalism” or “new journalism”. You are either doing journalism or you are not.

Andami Kong Alam: Some Context on ‘Out of Context’

"Kalma lang, manatee"
“Kalma lang, manatee”

Social news site Rappler issued an apology last week for making an Instaquote from an interview with Liberal Party presidential candidate Mar Roxas on the supposed “Laglag Bala” scam that has been in the news of late.

“Instaquotes are a new form of instant distillations of sometimes complex issues. In the past, we shared memorable quotes, but there’s possible danger when applied to news. Because it is visual with a higher viral potential, when shared and removed from context, it can be open to misinterpretation,” it said in a Facebook post.

Continue reading “Andami Kong Alam: Some Context on ‘Out of Context’”

Andami Kong Alam: And Who Are You That I Must Bow So Low?

Pic actually unrelated, but I had it on my desktop, so
Pic actually unrelated, but I had it on my desktop, so

There was some ugliness between news websites last week over a story on a PWD triathlete that was published on VERA Files and that later appeared on Rappler.

It has since been resolved, but you can read more about it here.

These things happen and ideally are easily resolved given the nature of the platform. It takes a while and, as in this case and a similar situation that I was in with alternative news website, sometimes requires a lot of following up.

I have worked with people from Rappler and some of them have become friends and I used to contribute to VERA Files and work for yet another news website, so I have tried my best not to comment on the whole mess.

What rankles, though, is the needlessly haughty way that Rappler handled the situation. Here, for example, is a tweet from one of their editors:

Luz is Luz Rimban, who used to edit my stories and who is on the VERA Files board of trustees, and the tweet makes it seem like Lala, the editor who worked on the story that later appeared on Rappler, was out of the loop on discussions on the story and that the matter was settled.

She was not and the matter was not at all close to being settled until Monday, July 20, when Rappler finally took the story down.

Before then, they tried to deflect the issue by saying readers should instead focus on the plight of PWDs. It is an important issue, sure enough, but so is ethics in journalism. So is intellectual property rights. (As an aside, VERA has been reporting on PWDs even before I wrote for them from 2012-2013.)

Before then, this:

The editor’s parting shot was for VERA Files to “avoid accusatory language.” In a subsequent email, the same Rappler editor said that Rappler “stealing” (Rappler editor’s word) from VERA Files does not make sense.

As a reporter and editor, I try not to assume things (it has generally not served me well), but it is difficult not to read between the lines and see the implied rebuke that Rappler is too big to “steal” from VERA, which is a much leaner organization.

And this, I think, is the worst of the many cuts they have made. Until recently, Rappler was an upstart company struggling for legitimacy and credibility. They have improved a lot — we all have — in the years since they went live, and I have been among their biggest fans of late.

At one point, I sat one of our social  media people down to explain that yes, Rappler is legitimate competition, and yes, they have done some things better than we have.

When they were starting out, an anonymously written blog sarcastically dubbed them “God’s Gifts to Journalism”, a moniker that some people picked up and still use (but that I never did).

In the aftermath of all this ugliness, the same Rappler editor tweeted a link to a story on PWDs with what might as well be a subtweet: “This is the issue.”

They may not claim to be God’s Gifts to Journalism, but some of them are, it would seem, infallible.

Writing this not as someone working for a competitor or even as a former VERA contributor (I still am one, technically, except I do not contribute), but as someone who didn’t make it to journalism school and has been working since Day One to be as legit and authentic as those who did.

Andami Kong Alam: Words on Words

Photo from
Photo from

Someone put forth the proposition today that it is useless to insist on the dictionary definitions of words because these are archaic while language is dynamic, and, anyway, the dictionary was written by men.

In support of the argument, this graphic:

From Internet
From Internet

The context of the statement, or as much of it as I was prompted to engage with the person over was this:

The slang word “ho”, for whore, is used derogatorily and because there is nothing at all wrong with people enjoying sex, it should not be so.

Some women, against whom words like ho and whore are used against most often, are reclaiming the word to, I suppose, render it harmless, and remove the stigma attached to enjoying sex.

I have no quarrel with that. I am a fan of sex, of women, and of women who enjoy sex. There definitely is a double standard when it comes to sexuality, and that should change.

As a person who works with words, however, I am having trouble with the argument that dictionary definitions are just the opinions of these white guys who have long since died, and were long dead when “ho” was first used in print (in 1965, according to Merriam-Webster).

While it is true that these white guys who compiled the dictionaries were affected by their own biases on what constitutes proper English, they certainly did not pull the words in the dictionary out of their asses.

I posited that dictionaries reflect usage and not the other way around. As a language guide, a dictionary cannot insist, for example, that “fish” means, say, mongoose, and get away with it.

People who actually use the language would probably say something eventually. For example, fish when they mean fish, and probably something along the lines of: “What the fuck? That is a mongoose.”

And, at any rate, things have changed a lot in the dictionary business since cartoon Herbert Coleridge and cartoon Noah Webster made their dictionaries.

Here, for example, is how Merriam-Webster the company, actually decides what to put in a dictionary:

Before a new word can be added to the dictionary, it must have enough citations to show that it is widely used. But having a lot of citations is not enough; in fact, a large number of citations might even make a word more difficult to define, because many citations show too little about the meaning of a word to be helpful. A word may be rejected for entry into a general dictionary if all of its citations come from a single source or if they are all from highly specialized publications that reflect the jargon of experts within a single field.

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

Language is an ever-changing thing, as we see every year (usually accompanied by a groan) with the addition of words like “selfie” to the dictionary.

To say, however, that dictionary definitions do not reflect what words mean, or rather what words mean to most people who use a certain language, is a dangerous proposition.

If anything can mean anything because you say so, then how will we understand each other? Arbitrary meanings and usage was taken to an extreme, for example, in the Balkans of the 1990s when “the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats each began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness” despite having the same Slavic root.

Assuming we are speaking the same language (as much as that is philosophically possible, I guess), to change the meaning of a word, you need to change how it is used.

To do that, you will have to engage people with more than just a cartoon.

The cartoon, in any case, talks more about how dialects were left out of the mainstream of English and does not suggest that “ho”, or whore from which it came, was included in the dictionary as a tool for the oppressor. Merriam-Webster, in fact, says men and women can be whores.

Do that often enough and long enough, and the definition will change along with usage. That will probably never happen for fish and mongooses, of course, since they do not usually bother with words anyway. But people can change, or enough people can change for society to change. And, with that, the way we talk and think about each other can too.

PS: I really try to avoid engaging in talk about gender because I am a man and am therefore too privileged despite being brown and poor to really talk about it with much credibility. This is not about gender, really, but about words.

Field Note 07: Sulu, farewell

Patikul, Sulu
Patikul, Sulu. May 2015

I was in Sulu earlier this month on yet another assignment given on short notice and accepted with no hesitation that I want to be part of my personal brand, in as much as I believe in having personal brands.

“You wanted the best… well, they couldn’t fucking make it,” say Guns n’ Roses and also me, when I show up wherever it is they want me to show up.

I was a little weepy and nervous the first time back in Mindanao since 2012 because of tension in some areas and because there wasn’t really anyone to say goodbye to except the dogs and it is always nice to think that there is someone who isn’t family who is waiting for you to come back.

But this was my third time to go in as many months and it becomes easier each time. Besides, I had never been to Sulu (and Zamboanga, which was the next stop) and would get the chance to ride an Air Force C-130. Family and dogs could handle me being away for a few days, I figured.

We like to talk about how we’re doing public service and recording history and all that noble stuff — and those are true things — but part of the thrill of the job is getting to go to places you have never been in modes of transport that you normally wouldn’t get to do it in. There is also the possibility of dying, and not of hunger this time.

I learned several things during the trip aside from the things that I filed stories on. Like, for example, how you can get by without a laptop but not without a spare phone (preferably a BlackBerry because they are pretty much bulletproof) and the value of having SIM cards for the two telco networks in case signal is spotty. Both networks are unreliable, but thankfully will not let you down at the same time, or at least not quite in the same way.

I was also reminded of the value of having a good desk person to process and post the story.

I rarely ever file stories without checking whether names are spelled correctly and without providing as much background and context as I can, but sometimes, like when you are in a provincial city in China, or on a far-flung island province in the southern Philippines, you can’t rely on Google for verification.

Also, sometimes, you are tired and hungry and have to spend half your energy trying not to fall asleep at the press working area because public hearings tend to run for hours and we live in a humid and hot country.

The best you can do is let the desk know that you are unsure whether you heard a certain name correctly and that they will have to look up what the 1976 Tripoli Agreement was about because you are pretty much just driving blind.

Although I have been working the desk for close to two years now, I have always had trouble accepting that I will not get as many bylines as I did when I was a reporter, that I am now pretty much support staff for the people in the field.

A friend at the other network has made peace with that, and always tells me that it is time to accept that we are not the rock star reporters that we set out to be.

You have to accept that you are now at a desk job and that that will not change anytime soon, and that you have to accept the grind of checking grammar and punctuation and style because reporters don’t always have the time to do it, she keeps saying.

I get it now and the best I can really hope for now is that I do my job well enough so our reporters will feel confident that their stories are in good (though merciless) hands when I am on board.

Anyway, here is a BlackBerry-quality video of us being escorted to Jolo airport:

Andami Kong Alam: The Beauty of the Beat

Camp Darapanan, the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao
Camp Darapanan, the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao in February 2015

A former editor whom I hold in high esteem once said: You can put a reporter in a room, and in five minutes, he will know what is going on, and what the story is.

In an ideal world, this is true, and I have gotten by by winging it more times than I am proud of (e.g. hung over, lacking sleep, and in the clothes I slept in). Sometimes, though, you get handed something like this, which is winging it by way of Icarus:

Angara said he and labor committee co-chair Davao Rep. Prospero Nograles will continue both investigations to take appropriate actions against the company’s alleged violations of the labor code. DOLE-National Capital Region Director Alex Avila’s initial report on Friday stated that Kentex used a subcontractor that was not registered with the department to hire its workers, 70 of whom died in the May 13 fire.

The problem with winging it, and getting away with winging it, is that you might assume (for some reason) that the Philippine legislature is unicameral, and that Prospero Nograles — former House speaker and losing candidate for Davao City mayor — is still district representative of Davao City instead of his son.

I am a firm believer in the value of specialization. More than (presumably) knowing how to write, the most important asset that a reporter has is his knowledge of the history, organization, and culture of the institution that he covers.

Having a beat, and knowing your beat (and, from another editor whom I also hold in high esteem but whom I have never formally met, respecting it) will help you put a story in its proper context. Knowing, for example, how a senator has acted and voted in the past, and comparing that with how he is acting and voting now, could help you help the reader understand an issue better.

Otherwise, you will have to rely on Google and secondary sources for background on a story, which is often not the same thing as context.

There is nothing quite like being there and, to be honest, there are times when there is nothing else but being there.

With the Internet, you don’t even have to actually be there, but you have to be present at least in having the presence of mind to read up on a subject and knowing why it matters, or why it should.

It is increasingly easy now to just phone it in, and that is the worst kind of winging it, because although you will get away with it for a while, it is only a matter of time before you lead someone astray because they trusted you to know more, and care more, about an issue than they did.

If you’re not going to make the effort to deliver, then it’s best to forget deadlines, lose the byline, and be a reader instead.