Shared responsibility: Making better media

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The Congressional Committee on Education said it all in 1990: taking the most popular courses in Philippine universities and colleges does not guarantee the new graduate a job after school. Every year the graduates of the country’s numerous colleges and universities end up swelling the army of the unemployed, among other reasons, said EdCom, because the courses Filipinos take are not the courses the country needs.

EdCom 1990, which proposed a number of reforms in the Philippine educational system, specifically mentioned Engineering, Business and Law as among the most popular courses in the Philippines, the graduates of which end up jobless or in jobs they were not trained for. Because many engineering graduates end up as air-conditioner salesmen and business graduates copying machine operators, EdCom suggested that the schools match job availability and the country’s needs by admitting only enough people into college degree courses who can be absorbed by the job market.

EdCom did not mention mass communication or journalism courses. Nevertheless, these courses rank among the most popular for high school graduates who regard them as passports to glamorous jobs as news anchors or newspaper columnists. The Commission on Higher Education Communication Committee has found that, in apparent indication of the popularity of what most students refer to as “masscomm,” over a hundred schools all over the country from Bukidnon in the South to Laoag in the North offer mass communication, communication, journalism or broadcasting degree courses.

These schools graduate literally hundreds each year, among whom only a very few manage to get into the media-related professions (among them advertising, public relations, marketing research and public information). In the media professions themselves, meaning in print journalism, broadcasting (both TV and radio), as well as film, only a very precious few jobs are available each year.

Limited Market
The job market is so limited in journalism, for example, that most new graduates who decide to go into journalism practice are forced to work as correspondents, with only a few managing to land regular jobs in the Manila broadsheets. Even University of the Philippines graduates who are scholars of the Philippine Daily Inquirer–a privilege that includes being hired upon graduation–are not assured of jobs in that newspaper, and neither are UP-s honor graduates.

The alternative of working for the community press is as limited. It is true that there are occasional job opportunities in places like Cebu where community newspapers are prospering. Cebu’s case, however, is the exception rather than the rule, and in most other communities the newspapers are run on shoe-string budgets by over-worked and underpaid staff members, among whom hiring new graduates is the least pressing concern.

The plain fact is that, despite the proliferation of broadsheets and tabloids in Manila and certain other Philippine cities like Cebu, the Philippine press industry is not growing enough to hire the manpower expansion would require.

Some would argue that the Philippine press is not growing at all, despite the value that Philippine society supposedly places on the media as instruments of democratization, primarily because such a growth is first of all dependent on economic factors, among them the health of those corporations whose products need to advertise in the media, as well as the health of the economy overall.

At the same time, growth via increased circulation is equally problematic, again because of the country’s economic difficulties–which, so the argument goes, forces people to forego newspapers in favor of food and other necessities.

Meanwhile, the staff turnover among Manila’s nine broadsheets is not sufficiently high to admit all of the thirty or so journalism graduates from just the University of the Philippines each year. This is of course a given, dependent entirely on average life expectancies and the individual practitioners’ decades of productive capacity, and about which nothing much can be done except perhaps forced retirement policies at a certain age on the part of the broadsheets.

Some journalism or communication graduates, however, choose not to practice as journalists because they want to do something else. It may not be typical of all journalism/mass communication schools, but in the University of the Philippines barely five out of a class of 20-30 eventually go into journalism.

Disillusioned graduates
The rest decide to either study further, or go into advertising or public relations, or–an even fewer number–to work as information staff in advocacy organizations. Part of the reason seems to be disillusionment over the profession, which many UP students specially the truly gifted and sensitive eventually come to regard as both low-paying and a dead-end career and as inhabited by corrupt though self-righteous practitioners.

In one journalism graduating class of 30 in UP, for example, several went to the study of law, and masters’ degrees in other disciplines. Still others became public information officers in government offices including the Senate and the House of Representatives. At least three became information officers in people’s organizations. One became the spokesperson of an NGO. Two became news writers for television. Only five went into print journalism.

The decision not to go into journalism does mean less pressure on the mass media professions. But it also means limiting to the relatively less gifted the choices of newspapers whenever job openings become available. This helps explain why many editors complain that too many of those they hire as reporters are either unskilled or lack sufficient knowledge of government, business and economics, international relations and those other areas reporters are expected to cover intelligently. What they don’t know is that, at least in the case of UP, only a very few of the truly gifted decide to go into newspaper work.

In this the newspapers themselves have a share of responsibility. Despite their claims at stringent skills requirements, their accuracy, fairness, balance, and even grammatical records as well as reputations for corruption, conflicts of interest and bias are the stuff of much of the discussions in journalism ethics courses.

Equally legendary are the low salaries they pay, the terrible working conditions, and worst of all, the absence of opportunities for professional growth in organizations in which editors’ biases are demonstrated daily in the distortion of news stories that appear under the bylines of reporters who can barely recognize the finished product–and who nowadays are no longer told why their stories have been so mangled.

Equal responsibility
What editors forget is that their newspapers cannot escape responsibility in the making of a journalism that attracts, in too many cases, only the less gifted as well as the desperate. EdCom pointed this out in 1990, except that it was referring to the teaching profession, which because it paid so little and demanded so much in terms of keeping the goodwill of superiors and discharging a legion of responsibilities other than teaching, has over the years diminished in stature, today attracting the less gifted in contrast to the past when teaching paid well and teachers had status. Philippine journalism appears to be in the very same state, which among other implications suggests even more forcefully that the development of the mass media, specifically of journalism in the Philippines, is the responsibility not only of the schools and individual practitioners, but also of the mass media organizations both as exemplars as well as employers.

Despite poverty and economic decline, the media can actually be as indispensable to the citizenry as food and water, as they are in certain societies, so long as they provide the information people need to make the decisions crucial to their lives and to the life of society. But the media can create the audiences that they need for growth only if they are perceived to be discharging the role of information-provider with skill, responsibility, and knowledge.

The decision-makers (whether editors or publishers) in the profession of journalism, instead of constantly carping at how inferior work applicants are, can actually contribute to that process by being the living examples of competence and rectitude for future practitioners to emulate if they are to attract the most skilled and most ethically-conscious graduates. It will not do to expect of new graduates what they do not expect of themselves.

It is equally important that the media pay professional wages in return for professional performance. The editors and publishers complain about the quality of those who apply to them, but forget that by offering what amounts to a pittance, they risk, and usually succeed in, getting exactly what they pay for, meaning the relatively unskilled, many of whom end up augmenting meager incomes by accepting the usual envelopes.

Audience growth
The growth of the audiences that will stimulate advertising and boost circulations will in turn sustain and fuel the growth of the job market for new graduates that under existing circumstances is severely limited. Working conditions in which skill as well as ethics are primary qualifications and in which excellent work is rewarded fairly, by attracting the more skilled among journalism and communication graduates, can thus contribute to the widening of the job market that can only be the result of the media’s own growth and development.

Of course steps will have to be taken to curb the excessive proliferation of schools that offer communication degree courses, among which far too many, says CHED, are substandard in terms of faculty, facilities and curricula. This is a decision the government must make, as painful and as politically perilous as it may be.

The schools concerned may argue that “MassComm” is popular, and that, though they do profit from it, they’re only giving high school graduates what they want, implying thereby that government decision makers, so dependent on popularity surveys and opinion polls, should think twice about before biting that bullet.

In harnessing the will to do something about it, the government could take heart by recalling that it is equally true that many of the 100 or so communication schools in this country also mislead their students by making them believe that after four years they will end up celebrity practitioners like Cheche Lazaro or Max Soliven.

This is an illusion far crueler than the truth that in the poor country that is the Philippines, the media professions, like most others, is in far less need of new graduates than of new perspectives. The job market for journalism graduates is a shoe into which not all can fit; and sometimes the foot has to be cut to fit the shoe.

(Philippine Journalism Review, April-May 2000)

5 thoughts on “Shared responsibility: Making better media

  1. kidz

    the article just pushed the idea that success is not measured by popularity. i belive the goverment should really regulate communication schools… same problem in our institution… :'(

  2. Gladish E. Cutamora

    It isn’t a problem because there are a lot of alternatives to choose from after graduating. Call centers are looking for people like us, the masscomm students who can handle jobs merely commmunicating.

  3. ella

    That’s exactly the problem… we end up in jobs which dwell on “merely communicating”, and it’s not even the kind of “communication” we have learned in our four-year courses.

  4. Hi Sir!

    I’m a recent graduate of AB Communication Arts and yes, your article mirrors our sentiments and hardships. Yet, I think I am lucky because I manage to land a job in a broadcasting industry. Though my experience can really be translated as hell. There are people inside who really gave me chills because of unethical practices that are prevalent inside the much revered and over rated TV world.

    Anyway sir, may I quote your article because I am writing an essay about the Philippine media? Thanks!

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