The kidnapping of ABS-CBN anchor Ces Drilon has again raised and underscored a number of professional and ethical issues in Philippine journalism practice.

The professional issues certainly include the need for media organizations to adopt guidelines in the coverage of crisis and conflict situations. As a companion to those guidelines, safety training for those likely to be covering crisis and conflict situations has also become more and more urgent.

The conflicts and crises rife in a planet in great disorder will not end in the near future. These are likely to intensify and give birth to various permutations that will continue to put journalists in harm’s way as they seek out and interpret the news vital in understanding the political, social and economic environments of societies in the throes of crisis.

At the country level, particularly in third world countries like the Philippines, anarchy and violence have remained constant threats to the population despite the promise of a kinder, gentler world under the reign of the lone superpower.

Violence and war now define human existence in many parts of the world, while in others, low intensity conflict and perennial crisis haunt societies ruled by inept and corrupt regimes. Journalists routinely end up in the former today, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe are the everyday stuff of world news. But they also cover the often deceptive calm of societies in crisis where open warfare has not erupted, and which seem to be “normal” and at peace.

But because the issues that feed the conflicts and crises in the latter remain unaddressed, they often break through the surface calm of events as a reminder that all’s not well. In the Philippines, which belongs to the latter category of countries in seeming calm while in crisis, journalists are among the first to respond to these ruptures, both as a matter of routine, but, in too many cases, also as part of the need to outpace the competition.

The imperatives of developing guidelines in the coverage of crisis and conflict as well as for safety training have not been lost on Philippine media organizations, or at least the major players in the journalism community, among them broadcast giants GMA and ABS-CBN. Both have internal guidelines in the coverage of conflict and crisis, and both have provided safety training under the tutelage of security professionals to those of their staff who cover crisis and conflict.

Unfortunately, journalists tend to ignore their media organizations’ own guidelines when on the track of a story that could outdo the competition as well as enhance their own careers. These often outweigh other considerations, in some cases resulting in journalists themselves’ becoming part of the news.

The kidnapping of ABS-CBN’s news anchor Ces Drilon was in this category, if we’re to judge from her own admission that she ignored the instructions of her editors. She was nearly a casualty, however, not only of her determination to get an exclusive, but also of the network wars: the competition for ratings that has defined the relationship between ABS-CBN and GMA for over a decade.

That competition was a subtext in the reportage of both networks on the Drilon kidnapping. GMA reporting was thus subdued to the point of indifference, while that of ABS-CBN, in the days following the abduction itself and its request for media organizations to hold the story, was the complete opposite.

But that wasn’t the main bone of contention as far as ethical issues went, although it should have occupied a prominent place in the debate that ensued. Instead it was the ABS-CBN request to other media organizations to hold the story, and some of the latter’s granting it, that occupied the media.

The ABS-CBN request was condemned by media observers, among them Business World Editorial Board Chair Vergel Santos, as an attempt to “manage” the news. If Santos seemed alone in taking that position, it was because “managing” the news as it has come to be understood in journalism since the John F. Kennedy years of media manipulation implies the use of deceit, whereas the ABS-CBN request was a straightforward request.

The details of the story had not come in during the first hours of Drilon and company’s disappearance. The first ABS-CBN statement was itself not certain if she had been abducted, and referred to her only as “missing.” Given the absence of details and certainty as to what happened, the story could have been held for some hours. It was not clear whether ABS-CBN had only lost contact with Drilon or if she had been abducted, in which case there was not yet any pressing public interest to justify the release of incomplete and possibly inaccurate reports.

Once what had happened had been established, the reportage could have served both public interest by providing the public an accurate account, as well as given ABS-CBN the benefit of the assumption that it made the request because premature reportage could have imperiled Drilon and company’s lives.

But the caution needed included not only temporarily holding the story because it was not yet known what exactly was the story. Lives were also at risk. The ethical imperative of compassion extends to journalists’ treating each other with the same concern with which they’re expected to treat their news subjects. This is a fairly clear assumption in most codes of ethics, including the Philippine Journalists Code.

The Drilon episode raised other issues which should have been the major focus of any discussion on the ethical side of it. Certainly a major concern is whether the story — an interview with the Abu Sayyaf Group’s new leaders — merited the effort at all. If Drilon had indeed obtained it, would the story not have thrust the Abu Sayyaf — a bandit group rather than the “rebel separatist group” some reports have described it to be — back into the national stage?

The legitimization of a group whose depredations are no more than a police problem, in the context of a society in which there are groups with far more legitimate demands, is the kind of news “management” we can do without.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. Simply, media people cannot just trust their own ranks to report with responsibility, hence people could indeed die.

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