A project monitoring how the campaign for the May 10 elections is being covered by selected media organizations in Manila has bad news to report. The leading metro Manila broadsheets and the two biggest television networks may be “failing to meet a fundamental responsibility.” That responsibility is “making voters aware of what choices are available to them for the 12 Senate seats” as well as for the party-list and local elections.
Called “Elections: Citizens’ Media Monitor,” the project was put together by the non-governmental Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) with the help of church and civic organizations, and forty volunteer journalism majors from the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication under the supervision of two of their professors.
The project began monitoring the three biggest broadsheets in metro Manila (the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Manila Bulletin and the Philippine Star), as well as two news programs over GMA Channel 7, and four news programs over ABS-CBN’s Channel 2 and ANC (ABS-CBN News Channel) on February 16. This was shortly after the campaign period for national positions began in February 10.
The project issued its first two-week report on March 8, uploading the results on the CMFR website and releasing them to the media on the same date. CMFR has since then released three other reports: on March 22, April 5, and April 19. A fifth report will be released on Monday, May 3. A sixth report on both print and television coverage will be issued May 14, but a seventh on print alone will be issued on the 20th of May. (All the reports so far completed can be accessed in their entirety at the CMFR website [www.cmfr.com.ph]. CMFR also provides researchers and media organizations hard copies upon request.)
It’s the fifth report due for release on May 3 that disturbs the most, although there’s enough material in the four previous reports for serious concern. Covering the period April 12 to April 25, the May 3 report says that there was “virtually no information …provided by either the television (programs) or the newspapers (being monitored) on the candidates running for local office as well as the party-list groups.”
The report noted that the lack may be due to the “tendency of the national media to focus on the national elections.” However, there was not much said on the elections for the Senate either. “Only the candidates for the Senate who made it to the ‘magic 12’ in the surveys—who incidentally had the advantage of name recall like actors and old time politicians—were mentioned in (the newspapers and programs monitored).”
Because not much information—sometimes not even the names of those running for the Senate and other posts– was available in the media organizations being watched, in choosing who to vote for, the electorate will have to depend on the posters and advertisements of the candidates, whether for the Senate or at the local and party-list levels. The result could be “a decisive advantage” for the more moneyed and better financed candidates, thus reinforcing “the rule of money” in Philippine elections.
This was one more missed opportunity for the media. Except for rare and notable exceptions, the media organizations concerned mostly kept their focus on the candidates for national office, even as the campaign at this level became predictable and even tiresome.
The media could have offset the advantage of moneyed candidates by providing, for example, background information on the candidates running for the Senate and the party-list groups, perhaps in the manner of the information available in the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s I-site (www.i-site.ph) on the Internet.
Among other information that could help voters decide, the PCIJ I-site documents the family and corporate ties of candidates for office, and for those who were in Congress, their voting records.
But Filipino access to the Internet is limited, the current estimate being at less than a million. Research shows that most Filipinos rely on print, radio and television (the “old media”) for information. With 86 percent of the Philippine population estimated to have access to television, and 72 percent to various forms of print (presumably including the comics and the tabloids), it’s a fairly safe guess to say that for much of the electorate, the media have become the major means of political education. An Ateneo de Manila study in Payatas thus found that the media are residents’ main sources of information. At the University of the Philippines, numerous theses at the undergraduate and graduate levels have discovered the same thing.
Which makes the CMFR project’s findings worrisome. If the media (rather than the schools and the churches) have become the main sources of information for most of the population, the media’s failings during campaign seasons will result in such problems as the election of the unqualified and corrupt—the two most basic qualities of the bad leadership and bad governance that has plagued the country for decades.
The other findings of the CMFR project, as reported in its four previous reports, are only a little less distressing.
The coverage of the monitored media organizations started off well, with all the candidates being covered during the first two weeks. The country’s biggest TV networks did not limit themselves to covering President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Fernando Poe, Jr., Raul Roco and Panfilo Lacson. Both gave candidates Eddie Villanueva and even Eddie Gil a fare share of media time. Noticeably absent, however, were reports on the lesser known vice presidential candidates. Alyansa ng Pag-asa’s Hermie Aquino was thus overwhelmed by reports on the KNP’s Loren Legarda and K-4’s Noli de Castro, although even these were few and far between.
Fernando Poe, Jr. received the most coverage in terms of time over TV and space in the three broadsheets. While understandable because of the disqualification case against him then pending before the Commission on Elections and later, the Supreme Court, this focus included reports on Poe’s “love child” by a movie actress. Because of his celebrity status, Poe has been the most coverage presidential candidate in both television and print except for a two-week period in which Mrs. Arroyo was the most covered.
In terms of theme, the coverage has mostly been on the candidates’ campaign sorties rather than the issues. The Inquirer did publish several articles on the presidential candidates’ views on family planning, the economy, and other development and policy issues, but this was not replicated in either the other broadsheets or the two networks, in which development issues were mentioned rarely or only in passing.
By its third report, the CMFR project had noted a decline in issue-related reports. By the fourth, it had noted a focus by the television news programs (though not by the broadsheets, which wisely gave these stories minor treatment) on comedian Dolphy’s reference to Mrs. Arroyo as “tonto”, the claim by VP candidate de Castro’s first wife that he had not been supporting their daughter, and the complaint for rape against K-4 candidate for senator John Osmena.
The focus persisted long enough for project researchers to refer to it as sensationalizing—to the detriment of reporting on the campaign for local offices which began in March. There was a “shortage of stories about candidates for the Senate, for local office, and the party-list groups.” As a result, “most of these candidates will remain unknown to the electorate until election day itself.”
The project noted that the electorate had “only the political advertisements as information sources about candidates for the Senate and almost nothing except posters and billboards for those running for local office.”
The reports do not include election-related reporting by other broadsheets and networks. It may very well be that they’re doing a better job in providing the information the CMFR project noted was lacking in the media organizations monitored. The painful truth, however, is that the broadsheets and networks concerned were monitored precisely because they have the widest readerships and audience reach. They could thus make a difference in the way government officials are chosen by simply widening their focus to include not only the presidential candidates but as many others as possible. That they may not be able to do this in time for the May 10 elections would be one more opportunity missed in making a positive difference.
(I am one of two UP professors involved in the CMFR’s “Elections: Citizens’ Monitor Project”. Besides being a member of the Board of Directors of CMFR, I am also editor of two CMFR publications: the Philippine Journalism Review and Journalism Asia. This declaration is being made for the sake of transparency.)