For a journalist the most basic of all forms, and at the same time the most crucial in the media’s informational function, news is also the most problematic in both concept and practice.
Thus is news defined with great difficulty even by experienced practitioners and academics. A quick scan of the usual attempts at definition, to start with, reveals fundamental disagreement over whether it refers to an occurrence in time and space, or to the account of that occurrence.
The disagreement is equaled by disputes over what characteristics define news. Although there does appear to be agreement over such factors as timeliness, reader/viewer interest, and significance, there is at the same time skepticism among certain practitioners and even academics (the late Curtis McDougal of Interpretative Reporting fame being among the latter) over either the wisdom or the possibility of ever arriving at an objective definition of it.
“News is what the editors say it is,” is a virtual mantra among the more hardboiled practitioners in the Philippines, among whom we find that generation glibly described as belonging to the “the old school.” Their “definition” suggests that many editors define news on the wing — or, as Edmund Lambeth (Committed Journalism) puts it, intuitively and on an ad hoc basis: they know news when they see it.
This generation — mostly practitioners who made their way through journalism without the curse (or benefit) of too much formal training — scoffs at the idea of journalism’s serving ends other than keeping the public interested in buying newspapers, and making the owners happy.
They are skeptical to the point of cynicism. They similarly reject any suggestion that the news should keep the public informed for any purpose beyond itself. They reject — correctly, it seems to this sometime practitioner who lived through the martial law period — any notion of the press’ serving a “developmental” purpose.
The skepticism does help prevent the errant nonsense implicit in the view that the news, even before it’s written, must serve a purpose predetermined by reporter and/or editor — or that to serve a public purpose, the news must be “good news.” But it also reduces the news function to the simple expedient of reporting whatever editors believe will interest the public at any given time — whether it be the current Philippine President’s terno of choice for her next State of the Nation Address, or Kris Aquino’s most recent romantic involvement.
The skepticism notwithstanding, they would probably reject McDougal’s (Interpretative Reporting, 1990) definition. Yet McDougal is as hardboiled as they come, focused on the news’ seeming undefinability beyond the political and economic interests that drive news in free market societies (news, says McDougal, is “anything a newspaper prints for profit”).
McDougal’s definition, however, does focus on that aspect of the news function which, while exerting the most influence on it, too many practitioners refuse to discuss, even if they’ve had first-hand experience with it: that news is often defined as anything that can sell more copies in furtherance of the newspaper organization’s goals as a commercial enterprise.
For all this, however, and as the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Fuller (News Values, 1996) suggests, it is possible to approximate a definition of news that’s not wholly subjective, and which looks beyond the journalist’s (or the owners’) personal preferences.
News is first of all an account of something recent (timeliness). It is also a report that is of interest to readers, and third, significant to them not only because it can affect their lives, but also because it happened in their immediate community (proximity and relevance).
Even more critically, news must be accurate, and not only in the sense that it gets the names, dates and places right, but also in terms of presenting “the larger truths” in a given issue and in society in general. Is the head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Hashim Salamat or Salamat Hashim? Getting the name right is important, but of equal importance are the demands of the MILF as a key to understanding the “larger truth” about the “Bangsa Moro problem” (the MILF’s preferred term to describe what it wants to address).
Though a seemingly simple injunction, being accurate has proven to be problematic, it seems specially for Filipino journalists, many of whom not only have the usual vices of certain journalists everywhere (incompetence, an inability to listen, malice), but who also compound those vices with the difficulties of wrestling with a foreign language.
In the Philippine setting the results can be dismaying if not disastrous, specially when the inaccuracies are committed by a newspaper powerful enough to determine the subject of national discourse merely through the expedient of putting it in large type on the front page. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, for example, misread a statement by the National Democratic Front’s Jose Ma. Sison, in which he suggested that among the New People’s Army’s possible responses to a “total war” policy by government could be its destroying power lines. For some reason the reporter said Sison had “call(ed) on” and even “ordered” the NPA to destroy power lines, thus setting off predictably belligerent reactions from various sources including the Philippine military, senators and congressmen — all of whom assumed the truth of the Inquirer report.
Accuracy for democratization
If inaccurate reporting can escalate war rhetoric, endanger peace processes and even set off a chain of events that can lead to actual conflict, on the other hand, accuracy can help a community acquire the understanding of events and their contextualization critical to democratization. A report that gets the names, places and dates right, and at the same time provides background and explanation, can do wonders in empowering a community towards making it aware not only of the dimensions of its problems, but also of the possibilities for its solution.
Many journalists, however, will frown at the suggestion that part of their work is that of suggesting, implying, or even reporting possible solutions to the problems they report, sometimes with studied exaggeration. They limit themselves to uncovering and describing problems in the belief that their public responsibility ends with the last paragraph in an expose on say, the destruction of the environment in a particular locality.
But as the late editor Jenkin Lloyd Jones said more than forty years ago (“The Inexact Science of Truth Telling,” The Press and the Public Interest, 1968), “the newspaper’s obligation to the welfare of the community is…fundamental.”
The practitioner, in the first place, is a citizen who only happens to be a journalist, either out of choice or happenstance, who does not turn in his citizenship at the newsroom door. The journalist “should be equally the citizen, participating to the fullest in the life and aspirations of his (community).” (Hodding Carter, “The Editor as Citizen,” Ibid.)
No authentic journalist can claim without lying that he or she is unconcerned with the issues that confront his community, whether it be the entire nation or the municipality of his birth and/or residence. His or her concern — or at least his/her interest — is usually evident in the way he/she chooses which events to report on, in the emphasis he/she gives certain aspects of that event, and in the way he/she exercises the selectivity inherent in reporting.
Despite what should be a self-evident fact, many reporters and editors shun any engagement with their respective communities beyond reporting its problems. Instead of meaningful engagement, the result is distance, from where the journalist — into whose head both the schools as well as older practitioners have drummed the idea of neutrality and objectivity in the sense of non-involvement— reports on events observed without being part of them.
And yet both engagement in the affairs of the community and neutrality are possible, if we define neutrality as it should be defined: as signifying that respect for the facts and the responsibility of truth-telling inherent in the primary responsibility of the journalistic enterprise.
The test of facts
A conflict between respecting the facts, and reporting the truth and community advocacy and engagement, arises only when the reporter distorts the news, or withholds essential information for the sake of proving his or her advocacy correct. One’s advocacy or engagement in the community, rather than an excuse for false reporting, should on the contrary be valid enough to stand the test of the facts; it is otherwise a cause unworthy of anyone.
What this means is that the journalist commits no violence to the responsibility of truth-telling if, after exposing a bad situation, or identifying and describing a problem as a newsworthy subject, he or she proceeds to suggest options to address it which the community can discuss.
This approach is in fact validated by the need, increasingly urgent in the Philippines, for its citizens to gain a better appreciation of the state of their country and community, and what can be done about it.
On an almost daily basis, however, the news is in practice limited to the gleeful presentation of the country’s problems, which one suspects has contributed immensely to the near universal despair and helplessness regnant in Philippine society.
Instead of empowering citizens this approach does exactly the opposite — whereas, as has been demonstrated in countries in far worse situations than the Philippines, no citizenry is so powerless that it cannot, once armed with the information vital to decision making, exercise the sovereign power to make choices.
(PHILIPPINE JOURNALISM REVIEW, August 2002)