EVEN THE least literate expect the news media to provide (although they don’t always do so) information on matters of public interest so people can understand what’s happening around them. The news pages provide citizens not only the facts; they also enable them to form opinions. But columnists and other media commentators even more directly shape public opinion by explaining and interpreting events.
Opinions often lead to action, and are the bases on which citizens support, suggest changes to or reject policies, question government decisions, object to proposed legislation, and make their views known on matters of public relevance. Ideally, this is a constant, ongoing process wherever and whenever a free press exists and is able to monitor governments. But it is during elections when the power inherent in the news media role of providing information and interpretation is most evident.
In acknowledgment of the media’s critical role in shaping voters’ opinions, and influencing who they will vote for, the parties and personalities in contention for national posts last May waged the 2010 campaign primarily in the media. A review of media performance suggests that overall, the major media organizations did not fail to provide either information or interpretation during the 2010 exercise. In print, the columnists helped readers wend their way through the tangled and often bewildering claims and counter-claims of the camps of the candidates for the Presidency and other posts, and in most cases managed to get at the truth behind those claims.
However, some of the columnists were part of the campaign machineries of this or that candidate. Their readers are either still clueless about it, or have come to know of it only in the aftermath of the elections — and when some were appointed to government positions and their roles publicly acknowledged by a grateful Benigno Aquino III.
Like everyone else, columnists have the right, and are expected, to express their views on matters of public interest. Who they think the voters should vote for, and why, are certainly among the questions columnists are expected to answer during election campaign periods.
But there is a difference between following events and commenting on them on the basis of their perception of what the country needs — what its problems are, and which candidates and parties have the platforms and policy planks that can best address them — from being committed to supporting that party and/or candidate, whether as a volunteer or as a paid member of the campaign staff.
The support that columnists — or any other journalist so committed — who continue to write during campaign periods end up providing is the use of their columns to influence public opinion in favor of their preferred candidate or party. They would not be of much use otherwise. Every columnist on the planet knows what their true value to a political campaign is. It helps explain why so few of those who have volunteered for, or are paid by, their favored candidate, are able to take the ethical path of at least taking a leave of absence for the duration of a campaign.
The conflict of interest inherent in some columnists’ being part of a candidate’s campaign or being committed to his or her candidacy even before or during the early stages of the campaign that began last February is disturbing enough. That they continued to write their columns without the public’s being forewarned that they were already committed to this or that candidate is equally worrisome.
No columnist who had been so involved has so far expressed any regret over these lapses. They seem unaware that they had breached the ethical divide that protects readers from the biases of partisan columnists and which separates public relations from journalism. That most if not all of those so involved were not trained as journalists helps explain their cluelessness. But that they had come from such other disciplines as economics, literature, business– and yes, public relations — does not excuse their respective publications from a charge of ignoring what should have been obvious to their editors.
And yet the decision of a major broadsheet — the Philippine Daily Inquirer — to let one of its columnists go suggests that its editors at least sensed that an ethical line had been breached. This is not to single out the Inquirer — other papers including this one included partisans for Aquino III and other candidates among its columnists. But the sheer number of its partisan columnists, the consistency of their focus on furthering the candidacy of the Liberal Party’s Benigno Aquino III , and its recent dismissal of one of its columnists for partisanship does raise a number of questions about the role of columnists in elections.
The paper justified the firing of one of its long-time columnists by accusing her of partisanship — apparently for Arroyo administration candidate for President Gilberto Teodoro and against Aquino III — during the campaign period.
But at least two other Inquirer columnists did seem as partisan as the paper claims the axed columnist was. And while it could be said of her that her ties with the past administration constituted a conflict of interest with that of the public, so did the ties of those columnists to the Aquino III campaign.
Some of the latter are likely to be in the communications group the Aquino III administration is organizing. One other columnist who was similarly committed while he continued to write his column in another newspaper has since assumed a post at the National Food Administration. The sister of another public relations practitioner disguised as a columnist of still another newspaper has been conducting media relations seminars for Cabinet secretaries.
In these circumstances, how far the columnists’ anticipation of these rewards influenced their writing is a fair question — which is why, as universally counseled by every journalists’ code of ethics, journalists must avoid even the suspicion of conflicts of interest. In the present instance the conflict was not merely suspected, but was real enough. The consequence is the erosion of public confidence in a free press, and the journalists’ own loss of professional credibility.