It is easy, almost reflexive even, to equate questions about the government’s claim of a “Red October” plot hatched by communist rebels — depending on who’s making the claim, with the optional participation of the pro-military Magdalo group and the Liberal Party — with unwitting or even intentional support for Communist Party of the Philippines propaganda.
In Thailand for a short work trip and thinking about how this job takes you places without necessarily letting you see much.
Not, at least, with the typical tight schedules and budgets of most working journalists.*
Sometimes, you’re lucky to even have a chance to wander around a few blocks near were you’re staying.
And that’s fine. We’re paid to report, not to be tourists — unless you are one of the lucky few to get to report about being a tourist.
This came up on a recent personal trip when, as is probably normal as people get older, differences in travel habits caused some tension.
A friend was wondering why I hadn’t bothered doing research on interesting tourist spots and this was the best explanation of why it didn’t even occur to me to do it: For most of my adult life, I’m somewhere for work and where I am is the interesting spot.**
I try my best to wander down side streets and get responsibly lost in new cities but, as always in this job and when on the job, I am not the hero of the story.
* There is nothing wrong with, and nobody will stop you from, exploring on your own time. The smart thing, really, is to extend your stay for a day or two for personal trips if you can afford to — I clearly cannot.
** The alternative answer is I am lazy. Also, interesting is relative and, in my case, is influenced by the desire to stay employed. A provincial disaster response operations center, for example, would not be top of mind for most travelers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.