Rule makers and rule breakers

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ETHICAL and professional issues so beset the Philippine media that hardly a month passes without some controversy erupting over how a media organization covered or commented on an event, and/or discharged its entertainment function.

The flaws of media coverage have sometimes been lethal enough to kill people, and some entertainment programs regularly ridicule, harass or subject participants to various indignities. Even in this development laggard of a country the media have almost total reach among its 90 million- plus people. The media’s constant and immense presence in the lives of this country, and hence, their influence on citizen values, attitudes and ideas — and, as the country saw in the Rizal Park hostage- taking incident of August 23, 2010, even on the outcome of the events they cover — is inevitably a public issue.

The controversies that often arise over Philippine media practice do indicate how seriously flawed the media are. But while these occasions too often lead only to assigning blame, they are also opportunities for the rational discussion of the issues they generate.

The debate over a January 1, 2012 Philippine Daily Inquirer story (“UST ‘Breaks Rules’ for CJ”) by Maritess Danguilan- Vitug, which alleges that the University of Santo Tomas broke its own rules by granting Renato Corona a Ph.D degree and graduating him with summa cum laude honors, is such an opportunity.

The Vitug story alleged that Corona — the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court facing impeachment charges before the Senate — had violated UST’s maximum residency rules and was therefore ineligible for a doctorate.

In a statement the following day, the University of Santo Tomas (UST), through a Philippine Daily Inquirer story by Lito B. Zulueta (“UST: CJ Earned Ph.D” ) raised ethical and professional issues against Vitug. The Zulueta story quotes UST as declaring that, contrary to Vitug’s allegation, it did not break the rules that govern its degree-granting powers because, being an autonomous institution recognized by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), it has the right to amend those rules. The implication is that Vitug broke the first rule of ethical journalism , accuracy.

UST also argued, according to the Zulueta article, that neither did Vitug disclose that she had written a book on the Supreme Court, and could thus be biased against Corona. The school also asked who went over Vitug’s article before it was published, since, as an example of online journalism (it was first published in the online news site Rappler), it probably did not pass through the gate-keeping process standard in print journalism, in which editors decide whether an article deserves publication on the basis of such standards as fairness and accuracy. UST also argued that the media should not have paid any attention to what it considers an internal issue.

Can UST, as an autonomous institution, change its own rules, specifically those governing the granting of degrees? The answer to that is yes, and CHED so authorizes it. But it would be reasonable to assume that it can’t do so to accommodate someone unqualified under the old ones, only in furtherance of what is both fair and just, and on the assumption that the new rules will apply to everyone else.
The claim that Vitug did not disclose a previous “run-in” with the Supreme Court was not exactly accurate. Vitug included in her story the information that the book, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, which she authored, had earlier raised questions about Corona’s academic record. Vitug also disclosed that she tried to get the UST side as well as Corona’s and even that of Supreme Court administrator Midas Marquez, but had been ignored.

The insinuation that as an example of online journalism the Vitug article did not go through the gate-keeping process standard in print journalism is misleading. Gate-keeping is indeed an issue in online journalism, but as editor-at-large of Rappler, Vitug is herself one of the site’s lead gatekeepers. Vitug was also the founding editor of Newsbreak.

Vitug’s being an editor alone does not clear her. Editors and gate- keepers are equally subject to the same journalism protocols and ethical standards with which every journalist must comply.

But the Vitug attempt to get the side of UST and Corona, and her disclosure that she was either rebuffed or ignored, were in keeping with journalism ethics and protocol, which demands that the journalist consult all sides in a controversy, failing which he or she must disclose that he or she did try to solicit contrary views. A journalist’s being ignored, or denied an interview , implies a waiver on the part of the prospective source of the right of reply in the same article, although it does not prevent the source from replying after publication.

The UST statement opened another, similarly problematic door. The claim that the media should not be paying attention to what a school does is obviously untenable in a democracy, even if it be only a rumored one. It implies that certain individuals or organizations are exempt from media and public scrutiny because of their status, in this case as an autonomous institution.

Autonomy does not exempt any university from media and public scrutiny, only to direct CHED supervision. What educational institutions do is so obviously imbued with public interest, no knowledgeable journalist , or even reasonably informed citizen, would argue for such an exemption. Government agencies, entire branches of government, whether the Presidency, the Judiciary or the Legislature; business; civil society; political parties; advocacy and religious groups — any group with a public role is a legitimate media subject.

Two issues are more relevant to ethical media practice in the present instance. The first is whether the UST attempt to reply to Vitug through an article written by one of its alumni (Zulueta) did not make it a party to a conflict of interest between, on the one hand, its interest in protecting and enhancing its image before the public, and on the other, the citizens’ right to an unbiased, accurate and fair report on a matter of public concern.

Zulueta is a UST alumnus , a faculty member of UST, and the adviser of the UST student paper The Varsitarian. He is also an editor of the Inquirer. He has written a number of what can only be described as public relations stories on UST and its 400-year achievements in the Inquirer, but has not disclosed, whether in those articles or the January 2nd one, his being part of the UST community.

People often mistake one for the other, but public relations is not journalism. While both make use of the same skills, their aims are entirely different and even antithetical. The other, related issue then is whether Zulueta the journalist did not paint himself into a conflict of interest corner by writing a story slanted for his alma mater — and being less than candid about his links to it.

(BusinessWorld)

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