Philippine media’s bitter blue pill to swallow

It’s hard not to post this very long blog entry without referencing to recent and previous experiences of mine regarding working in the broadcast media industry here in the Philippines, particularly in Manila where their headquarters/main stations are located. Those experiences I will reserve for my memoirs, I think, so… basta.

And another thing, it’s also hard for me to post this entry because I will be criticizing an industry where I belong, to the point of critiquing colleagues or co-workers. But that’s the point of constructive criticism — to have one grow and maybe point out things they might have missed about themselves, points that could be detrimental to their work and points they need to improve or correct. But Filipinos and criticism don’t seem to go together well sometimes unlike manggang hilaw and bagoong (unripe mangoes and shrimp paste).

Anyway, we try, so here goes…

This past week has been so surreal to Filipinos. With one loss and one win, you’d think we are on a race to become the most Google-able country where pretty people with quirky answers or disgruntled cops ruining international relations are born every minute. Well, maybe, yes, given that hey, in 1970, the country’s population was just about 37 million or so, but now that it’s 2010, hey, we’re nearing the 90 million mark. What gives, right?

But I’m not here to blog about the country’s population problem. I am going to blog about what I think about the media’s conduct in the recent negative speck in Philippine history — the August 23 hostage crisis.

Thanks to the internet and cable TV, the whole world now knows how local TV stations broadcast the news — sensationalist, on the prowl to get the “exclusive!” or “scoop!” of the day. Sure, there is what they call public service, since media is the watchdog of sorts of the government and the nation, they say. Media people always cry foul at the slightest injection of trampling on their rights as journalists, as press people, as people whose main job is to deliver what really goes on to the rest of the populace. But what happens if it’s their turn to trample on the rights of certain people they cover or report about? Aye, said Shakespeare, there’s the rub. May tama ka diyan, Bill.

beam me up, and beam me to the world

Sometimes I wonder, isn’t it enough for the news people to just cover the news and deliver it well? Why this pressing need to get an exclusive or scoop? Of course that’s the nature of media, too, as a business enterprise. If you have a news program on TV, people should tune in to you and advertisers should find you interesting enough to place a 300,000 pesos 30-seconder ad on your show. And how do you entice them? Present stories that they could watch “only” in their show. It’s the same with newspapers. In order for people to actually buy and read your newspaper, you have to have a compelling story at the front page, with matching picture/s to boot. And thus, I again wonder: isn’t it enough to just report the truth, deliver the news accurately, present the facts with integrity? If you do all these, then it’s automatic that viewership and readership, plus sponsorship, will follow. Or is that wishful thinking?

With this, I remember a stint I had before when I was the entertainment editor of a small newspaper with national circulation, whose publisher was no less than the stellar icon of journalism in the country, Eugenia Apostol, founder of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. When she left PDI, she started this small newspaper where I found myself in the company of veteran journalists and editors. But as the competition grew fierce for us, sometimes the paper also resorted to having such “shocking” headlines or very catchy (but not lewd) pictures on the front page. There was one time Ma’am Eggie was clashing with the editors, because she wanted to put the coco levy farmers issue story as the front page headliner for our weekend edition. The editors wanted to run yet another story on the controversial story of that time, Philippine actress Nida Blanca’s murder. We already ran a lot of stories about that, almost daily, and the editors feared that if we don’t run another story about it — like what the others are doing — then we will lose in sales. Olats, kumbaga, or talo, “defeated” in Filipino slang. But what Ma’am Eggie said really made me flip, as they talked:

Editors: But ma’am, coco levy? No one will buy our paper…

Ma’am E: Then give them away, for free, to the farmers.

Hanep. It was then I knew why the lady was such an icon. This was the lady who reported on the discrepancies of the investigation of the murder of Ninoy Aquino prior to the First EDSA Revolution, mind you. The lady is a legend.

Now why can’t a newspaper just be full of integrity, plain and simple? Why can’t their stories “just” be well-written, appealing, and enjoyable? Why can’t a TV news show be the same?

Once, a friend of mine, a former junior executive at ABS-CBN news, was telling me about the latest revamp of their nightly news program. They were reformatting the show, they said, in order to be in tune with the current taste of the audiences. I laughed and I said that no matter how much “attuned” they are to whatever audience, the people will still watch the news on their rival network. She asked why, and I told her that it’s because the anchors at GMA-7 sound more reliable than theirs. And she was bewildered because that was also the result of a focus group discussion they conducted, she said. I don’t think there’s no need for any FGD on that part. These days, news delivery is as important as the news being delivered. And we need cool, calm, and collected anchors who look reliable while they are reporting, who wouldn’t look like they are grandstanding or subtly releasing tirades while they report. They had–and they have–news anchors who were/are like that. Even the average viewers say so. Look at the comments on this news item for reference.

Not to say that I have something against ABS-CBN or I am pro-GMA-7. Okay, this is where the personal comes in. My very first mainstream media job was at ABS-CBN for a popular news personality whose show was just one week old that time. And that was how long I stayed in that show, too — one week. There was something about the culture inside their News and Current Affairs division that I didn’t really like, plus I was schooled as a filmmaker so I didn’t find broadcast news work very appealing. A few years later, I found myself at ABS-CBN Foundation writing scripts for their Current Affairs-produced TV programs for children, a brief stint I really enjoyed. And in 2006, I enjoyed that stint again in the form of directing children’s TV shows produced by the Public Affairs division of the rival, GMA-7, and later writing similar shows again. But to clear it, nope, I am no longer connected to GMA-7 now. My stint officially ends when they air the very last episode I scripted for them the first week of September.

No love lost there. TV work is clearly like that. You have to understand that people really come and go in these networks. You’ve heard of the issue of the very unfriendly treatment of union workers in ABS-CBN, right? And then there was that issue where GMA-7 was supposedly doing loyalty checks of their talents, since a lot of them suddenly migrated to the upcoming third rival TV5. That’s just how TV work is; people come and go, ratings rise and fall.

Ratings. Ah, that’s another animal altogether.

You talking to me? You talking to me?

So with what happened at the Quirino Grandstand, people’s immediate reaction to media’s blunder of showing everything live on TV as they happened was that these actions were motivated by this uncanny war for ratings supremacy. Immediately after receiving such criticism, ABS-CBN released this disclaimer of sorts about their reportage behavior. GMA-7 later released this super-short statement saying they will assess what their reportage behavior was like.

If you look at the statements closely, you will see the arrogance of the first one.

————
Dahil sensitibo ang istoryang isinasapubliko ng media, importante sa ABS-CBN News ang self-regulation lalo na kung wala namang panuntunang pinaiiral ang mga awtoridad sa pagharap sa sitwasyon.
————

This is scary. In the face of having no guidelines from the authorities, ABS-CBN said they practiced self-regulation. Are you sure?

ABS-CBN later made a more formal statement. Journalists on my FB list who were circulating the links pointed out to the last portion of the statement, which read:

————–
We ask our broadcast colleagues to join us in an industry review.  Let us unite and work together to put in place measures to collectively decide when we stop live coverage in the absence of government presence of mind.
————–

Take note: “In the absence of government presence of mind.” Hmm, may ganung factor?

The GMA-7 statement, with its brevity, contained more neutral statements.

————-
Immediately after our live coverage of the hostage taking and its bloody outcome last Monday, we reviewed how we covered the situation. We are now taking a second look at our existing policies and processes to determine how these can be improved and how we can fill up what is lacking. At the end of this review, we will come up with a revised set of rules and guidelines to be implemented during situations that pose risks to our personnel and to the public. We are also open to dialogue with authorities on how we can work together in situations like this in the interest of the safety of the public, especially hostages.
————-

Dapat lang siguro. And with my earlier comment, I take it back. When I saw the way some anchors and news reporters were covering the event, as in blow-by-blow account, it entices panic among viewers. Anchors nearly shrieking, panicking, pointing out at every smallest detail of movement or change or whatnot in the things they were seeing as the events transpired? Wow, that’s credibility out the window there. Is it just me, or don’t they know that they’re not supposed to talk like sidewalk commentators who are affected by the turn of events? There’s objectivity out the window as well.

Whoosh.

In a forum recently conducted at the College of Mass Communication where I teach, ABS-CBN news honcho Maria Ressa–the one with the prestigious CNN stint for a background–said this:

————–
“When there are no rules, we push for what we can get,” Ressa said.
————–

Read the rest of what went on in that forum here.

Push for what they can get? That’s so scary. I wonder what happened to Maria. I look up to her as someone who has this integrity I was looking for in all the other anchors and news personalities we have in the country. Call it colonial mentality but I thought having that CNN background would differentiate her from the rest. But their statements all sound so defensive. I think in the local broadcast news media, press freedom is also misinterpreted for arrogance. Again, just read the comments of that Ressa story and you’ll get the sentiments of the Filipino people right there.

When I arrived at home that night, the hostage drama was still ongoing. I was able to monitor all the networks covering the event, since there was no choice anyway because that was the only thing they were broadcasting at that time (Which also gets me thinking, what about the other news of the day?). I first tuned in to TV5 where Erwin Tulfo–he of the controversial Tulfo clan of “journalists”–was somewhat reporting–nay, bragging–about how he was the one that some people wanted to participate in the negotiations or intervention or whatever the hell you will call what happened that night, to the point where–if i heard it right–the hostage taker himself wanted to communicate with Tulfo. In my mind, I was at a loss, after racking my brain, on finding some sort of logic to this whole scenario. And you think this is correct? I wanted to shout. I got fed up listening to him so I did the next best thing — switched the channel.

I then looked at ABS-CBN’s reporting of the events. It was fast, and then, it was over. The hostage-taker was dead, and they were bringing the hostages to different hospitals,and they were happily zooming in to the different sad situations of the survivors as they were being hauled out of the bus through the broken-glass windows, or laid out in stretchers, unmoving due to shock, or just bawling because of pain or grief. Yes, all in shocking full extreme close-up glory. ABS-CBN news already “perfected” this “zooming in to reveal pain” shots that they got in trouble about this before already, pre-Ressa’s time. But now, under Ressa, I guess it’s back. Or maybe they think they could get away with it with Ressa, since she probably doesn’t know that criticism about her network’s workers before. Well, if she did her homework, or if she reads this, now she knows.

What else is there to say about this style of reportage? Even if I majored in film and audiovisual communication, we also studied communication theories and other mass media subjects discussed such ethical issues regarding the broadcast industry. I’m not sure if their reporters and producers studied the same thing I did, but they were obviously trying to junk ethics for ratings there. Or maybe their anchors need to relearn anew. I was appalled when I watched youngster Atom Araullo’s report on “possibly” how the bus driver escaped using only a nail cutter. The studio anchor asked him how the driver managed to escape, and Atom went on to speculate about the kind of handcuffs the hostage-taker put on the hapless driver, whether it was the strap kind (easy to cut) or the steel kind (lock could be picked). And after speculating, only then did he said the disclaimer that he was just merely speculating. Oh my dear boy, when you speculate, that’s not news reporting; that’s airing an opinion, also called editorializing. So disappointed with that one.

But what shocked me the most was when I switched to another channel — either GMA-7 or their other counterpart QTV-11 — where I saw the coolest and at the same time the stupidest shot of them all. Reporters turned on the night vision feature of their cameras (the kinda black-and-white look), positioned themselves and their cameras where the police snipers were positioned, and followed the angle of the sniper rifle’s line of sight (in marksmanship, the sight of the gun aligned as it aimed at the target; yes, I am also a shooter). So thus, we viewers could also see the bus from the sniper’s angle of view, and we actually saw it when the sniper fired his rifle at the bus! And we could also hear the reporter interviewing the snipers before and after shooting! Haggard! Wow, wartime footage isdatchu??? I was like, am I the only one who seriously finds this disturbing? You can’t air that live on TV! Where’s MTRCB intervention when you need it???

”]

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my thoughts, as other media-focused organizations and individuals, including our very own former Mass Comm Dean Luis Teodoro, himself a journalist, said that there are limits to what you can air. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility people on my FB list reposted this list of guidelines they published in 2007 about what media people ought to do in a hostage situation, in the wake of a hostage situation that happened during that time, too.

Dean Teodoro said (also in that Ressa news report above):

———-
Journalism professor and former UP CMC dean Luis Teodoro said the live reports on the position of the police team at the time of the assault were a “gross violation” of protocol developed through many years of the journalism profession.

“We could blame the police for arresting the brother (of hostage taker dismissed police Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza). But why did the media decide to air it live?” Teodoro said.
———-

That, Sir Teodoro, is what Ressa called “pushing for what they could get.”

Amazing.

But you know what? Before we criticize media people for what they do, or what they did, specifically that fateful Monday, maybe we should also look at these media people for who they are first, in order for us to understand what happens — to them, or their work. And no, this is not about taking the defense of “They’re just doing their job” blah or anything of that sort. I, too, disagree with this lame excuse for their coverage and reportage behavior. You can do your job but there are certain limits and parameters you should follow as well.

And this is where that blue pill comes in.

Seriously speaking, most of those working behind the scenes in the news and public affairs/news and current affairs division really, genuinely, and truly aim to do a good job. Really. If you see them, they labor over their segments, stories and shows, even if some of them are paid very low (oh yes, it’s a fallacy that all TV media jobs are high-paying). You can see and hear how they sometimes prioritize their jobs over their families, their boyfriends/girlfriends/pets, or what have you.  And these people are also real, honest-to-goodness nice people who are out to do a good job, who are after making their shows better. Take note, the key word is “better.” That’s what you’ll hear in brainstormings, during meetings, and even casual discussions. How can we make our show better? Yes, there is that owning, because by claiming that they are part of the show, their media existence somewhat becomes more meaningful.

But as soon as reality hits them — or their bosses remind them of the realities — that’s the time when things go wrong. That’s the time when their imbibed secondary objective of media existence kicks in, like a pre-programmed silent microchip embedded in their beings the moment they are given that media ID to work. And that microchip’s programming contains two things: one, beat the rival network/s and two, your show should win in the ratings. Yes, the operative word being “should.”

This is what happens when good-natured people who set out to do a good job are reminded that they have to beat the competition… or else. All of a sudden, it’s a race for survival. All of a sudden, they are reminded that they are not doing a “good job” if their shows are not doing well with its ratings. All of a sudden, they are reminded that their show in their particular time slot should beat out the shows of the other networks in that particular time slot. Even if we know that there could be different sets of circumstances as to why a certain show in a particular time slot gets high or low ratings at a particular date, it is still instilled in them that low ratings equals low job performance. Maybe their channel’s signal was weak at that time, so viewers tuned out. Maybe their show didn’t have good colors or speakers uttered a bad line, and viewers tuned out. Maybe their guest or storyline or execution of a story for that particular episode wasn’t done very well, so viewers tuned out. Maybe there was a national disaster or catastrophe, or maybe there are juicier bits found somewhere else, like on radio or the internet, so viewers tuned out. Maybe some of their their avid viewers went on vacation that day and didn’t watch TV, so there were no sparks in the ratings. Maybe some of their avid viewers woke up late or slept too early that particular time, so the ratings went low. You’ll never know. So you see, there are so many factors, and yet, they point to the workers of the show for the error in ratings. Of course we can’t also say that the workers didn’t err in some way. Maybe that was a badly-written episode, yes. Maybe that was a badly-directed episode, yes. Maybe the news anchor’s demeanor was off at that time, yes. Again, you’ll never know. But still, we also can’t put all the blame on these workers when the ratings don’t fly, either. Chicken and egg, yes? Yes.

In the end, no matter whether you poured your heart and soul, plus your liver (which is what was damaged with me) and lungs (which is what gets affected by the constant smoking of colleagues) and brains on a particular show, you’re nothing if you don’t rate. You are your ratings, or you are only as good as the last high rating. Or you are doing a good job as long as your show is rating well. And it doesn’t really matter how high the numbers are. Believe me, as long as the show is ahead even by just a fraction, or one whole digit, then they are already happy, and they feel that that is a victory, that they busted the competition with the ratings game.

Serbisyong totoo? Panig sa katotohanan? That’s what both networks say they do, and they purport, as evident in their tag lines. I beg to differ.

Does the blue pill chain you to the dark?

I don’t know if that is The Matrix that Ressa seems to be living in these days — as well as the others like her working in the media these days — but yeah, given last Monday’s situation, they were all taking that blue pill. And now that the aftermath is being analyzed, too, we have yet to see whether they will realize that they are on the blue pill. Should we wait until they opt to take the red pill, and just plainly apologize for the excessive coverage, the errors in reporting judgment, and/or finally admit that they did something wrong, that they contributed to the horrors of that incident?

Aye, that is when that blue pill starts to taste bitter. I guess it’s hard for them to utter m-m-m-m…me-me-mea..mea c-c-c-…cul… Mea culpa. Yeah, mahirap iyan. For them to say “my mistake” is, well… I don’t know.

In the end (or for now), let’s just hope that they seriously take a look at what happened, what they did, and I seriously, seriously hope that they listen to us, the viewers. Waking up to the red pill takes time, I know. So I’m going to give them that.

I just hope, though that they won’t say “What blue pill? What red pill? THERE IS NO SPOON.”

Patay tayo diyan, teh.

Morpheus (daw siya) and Trinity burying the Matrix. Yes, we watch too many movies. No TV for us.

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~ by leaflens on August 29, 2010.

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