Professor Aquino

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HE DIDN’T say it in those words during his most recent tirade against the media, but President Aquino had a point: what is a former government official doing reporting and commenting on public affairs, particularly on what’s happening during the administration of the President who replaced in 2010 the President he served as Vice President?

Mr. Aquino was of course referring, although he did not name him, to Noli de Castro, who was in attendance during the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol program. After six years as the Republic’s second highest official, de Castro almost immediately returned to ABS-CBN network, apparently without asking himself when taking his old job back if he could be as fair, honest, and accurate as the ethics of journalism require once he was back as anchor of Magandang Gabi Bayan and other network news and public affairs programs.

Neither did network executives, one of whom, instead of answering the question implicit in Aquino’s criticism of de Castro’s reporting/commenting on such matters as the state of the country’s airports two years after Aquino became President by defeating the candidate of de Castro’s former boss and benefactor, instead assured everyone including Malacanang that the network bore no ill-will towards the administration.

It’s typical of the cavalier attitude of both media organizations and some practitioners towards conflict of interest, such as that which ensued when, with his loyalties, debts of gratitude and other political baggage intact, de Castro took up his old post at ABS-CBN, and with hardly a pause (or a thought), began reporting and commenting on political and governance matters.

It’s also typical of how often both miss the point. Not that de Castro had ever been distinguished for strict adherence to such professional standards as accuracy, fairness, etc. Although reputed to be a broadcast journalist, de Castro is more appropriately described as a reader: one of those individuals in this country who claim that title, but who, on a daily basis, are handed a reporter’s account they then read over the air, during and after which Philippine broadcast practice allows them to express their two cents’ worth of opinion—which in most cases turns out to be worth exactly that.

For his seeming dedication to exposing wrong-doing, but more for the timbre of his voice and sheer media presence, de Castro became enough of a celebrity to be elected to the Senate, and later to the Vice Presidency. Despite its seeming irrationality, the election of celebrities, many of them clueless as to the responsibilities of public office, does have a reason behind it.

Made cynical by decades of bad governance by people armed with college degrees, recognition as professionals, business acumen, and those other qualities that would supposedly enable them to govern wisely, the electorate concluded that none of these mattered, and that only a commitment to the welfare and interests of the poor majority would assure them finally of a voice in government. But, confusing their media persona for their real world identities, the electorate thought such media celebrities as Joseph Estrada and de Castro fit the bill.

The results of next year’s elections should indicate whether the electorate has had enough time to realize its error. Meanwhile, the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of TV Patrol is the third media gathering this year when Mr. Aquino has taken the media to task. In all three occasions—he did it too during the general assembly of the Philippine Press Institute last May and the anniversary celebration of BusinessWorld a week ago—his theme has been the need for both media fairness as well as accuracy, and a preferential option for good rather than bad news in behalf of enhancing the country’s image before the rest of the world.

Both inaccuracy and lack of fairness, or bias, are the most problematic issues in the news media, and therefore most relevant of Mr.Aquino’s concerns. Accuracy is a first principle in reporting. An inaccurate report is not only of no use, can even be harmful, and is often evident in one-sided, or unfair reports. Mr. Aquino assumes malice in inaccurate reports, but inaccuracy is in some cases the result of incompetence, laziness, or both, while at the same time being driven by those biases journalist have like everyone else.

Mr. Aquino does have a point when he implies that journalists need to exert some effort in getting information from as many sources as possible rather than in relying on a single source, or, in far too many instances, simply indulging their biases to spin a story—such as when de Castro declared during a report on the Ninoy Aquino International Airport 3 that the situation at the NAIA 1 remained as bad as when he was Vice President. His demand for accuracy and fairness are, or should be, well taken, it being among the values of best journalism practice.

But Mr. Aquino’s expectation that journalists emphasize the good news in furtherance of enhancing the country’s image before tourists and its creditors clashes with those very same values. Although it resonates among a public grown weary of “bad” news, the demand that the news media emphasize “good” news even to the point of excluding the “bad” (among the examples in this vale of tears are corruption, crime, human rights violations, the killing of journalists, etc.) violates the very same principles of accuracy and fairness Mr. Aquino correctly expects of the media.

In addition to the obvious enough truth that you can’t get an accurate image of the state of a society from exclusively positive reports, neither can a society address its problems without knowing what those problems are. Awareness and understanding of the “bad” news is as much a part of the process through which societies develop as the “good” news is, which is why journalism practice mandates the reporting of news, period.

Nevertheless, Mr. Aquino has obviously taken it upon himself to instruct the media on their responsibilities in the belief that despite the self-regulatory regime in place in the media and journalism community, it isn’t doing a good enough job at regulating itself. He may not have been entirely right, but he hasn’t been entirely wrong either, and has reminded the media that if they don’t regulate themselves according to their own values and principles, someone else will do it for them, and that someone is likely to be the government they so freely criticize.

(BusinessWorld)

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