The abs-cbnnews.com website recently carried excerpts from journalist Maritess Vitug’s July 30 Genaro Ong lecture.
Vitug is an award-winning journalist and author of “Shadow of Doubt”, the book on the Supreme Court that qualifies as a non-fiction blockbuster in this country. She is editor in chief of Newsbreak. (While no longer published regularly as a magazine, Newsbreak remains involved in investigative or, at least, in-depth journalism.)
Her speech, “Advocacy and Its Place in Journalism” tackles issues that have not only split journalist into opposing camps, but have also led to many a brawl between journalists and their audience.
Vitug describes the Freedom of Information bill, which died in the last few hours of the last Congress, as “a big boost to our hunger for transparency.” The bill has been re-filed. President Benigno Aquino III, who plucked from the media three well-known personalities to man his communications group, earlier said he supports the bill, but has since been silent on it.
Hopefully, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte (a former reporter), encourages his colleagues in the new majority to swiftly pass this measure. Hopefully, too, media groups and other advocates of transparency in government wage a more sustained, systematic lobby.
During his first State of the Nation Address (Sona), Mr. Aquino challenged journalists:
“May you give new meaning to the principles of your vocation: to provide clarity to pressing issues; to be fair and truthful in your reporting, and to raise the level of public discourse.”
Vitug welcomes the challenge. There certainly is nothing wrong with wanting to improve journalism standards. No media organization would dismiss this call.
But as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) notes, to raise the challenge while ignoring the back story –140 journalists murdered, 103 of these during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nine-year rule – seems to be adding insult to injury.
The country's largest organization of journalists says the media needs to remain "uncompromising" in reporting the truth to the public.
Vitug also notes that the task of scrutinizing government actions and policies should be independent of a leader's popularity rating.
Certainly, the relationship can't be one way. As the NUJP notes:
"While we heed the President’s call, his government must also ensure a more secure environment for journalists so they do not lose their jobs if not their lives in the performance of their work.
If the Aquino administration will be true to its promises of reforms, it should ensure unhampered access of information to the public so that journalists can do their jobs better."
In the days leading to Mr. Aquino’s inaugural, journalists were asked about a “honeymoon.” The tenor of the question suggested a temporary suspension of criticism in favour of giving a very popular new leader the benefit of the doubt. I remember saying that media is not obliged to give anyone a honeymoon. What is expected of us is fairness, which should be a given on any day and for everyone.
Vitug believes the press can’t be complacent just because Mr. Aquino’s ratings are stratospheric. Nor, she adds, should journalists cede "the tenets of journalism and the standards of accuracy, fairness and honesty that cover our work.”
“Without these tenets, we will lose our credibility. We will lose our reason for being,” Vitug points out.
What could provoke debate is Vitug’s view on advocacy.
“Some propose that journalists should be advocates. Advocacy doesn’t necessarily jibe with journalism. Reporters, those who write the news, should not engage in advocacy.
But opinion writers, those who write editorials and columns, are free to advocate, to take positions on issues and personalities. Magazines which interpret and analyze the news also usually take positions.” (itals mine)
Many people confuse advocacy journalism with "bias." The latter is a loaded and very subjective term.
Merriam Webster On-line defines advocacy journalism as "journalism that advocates a cause or expresses a viewpoint." That's a neutral definition.
Compare that with its definition of "bias":
"...bent, tendency b : an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice c : an instance of such prejudice"
Bias is usually what the beholder makes it out to be. The criterion can shift like sand. Google "media bias" and you'll be dropped into the middle of a melee between "conservatives" and "liberals," with a distinct who-is-not-our-friend-is-our-enemy mindset.
The "Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting" website says that among the questions a critical reader/listener/viewer should raise is "Who are the sources?"
"Be aware of the political perspective of the sources used in a story. Media over-rely on "official" (government, corporate and establishment think tank) sources. For instance, FAIR found that in 40 months of Nightline programming, the most frequent guests were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell. Progressive and public interest voices were grossly underrepresented.
To portray issues fairly and accurately, media must broaden their spectrum of sources. Otherwise, they serve merely as megaphones for those in power."
The group gives this advice:
"Count the number of corporate and government sources versus the number of progressive, public interest, female and minority voices. Demand mass media expand their rolodexes; better yet, give them lists of progressive and public interest experts in the community."
It's pretty clear that FAIR regards itself as progressive. On the other hand, the conservative Media Research Center, which sends out a daily Cyber Alert report to 40,000 subscribers, says of the need for "balance" in journalism:
"Leaders of America's conservative movement have long believed that within the national news media a strident liberal bias existed that influenced the public's understanding of critical issues. On October 1, 1987, a group of young determined conservatives set out to not only prove — through sound scientific research — that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values, but also to neutralize its impact on the American political scene."
Some people admire advocacy journalism. Others see it as a corruption of media's traditional role. Some even call it by a different name: citizen journalism, public journalism.
American journalist and sociologist, Ernesto Aguilar, notes that the debate over perspective was already raging in 1947, when Hutchins Commission addressed "a broad array of questions dealing with the future of a free press in a society dramatically changed from the society out of which the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grew."
Aguilar points out:
"According to the commission, by 1947, we lived in a time where there are so many competing opinions and viewpoints and so many things being published in so many different media that no one person can study and review ALL matter relevant to many of the important decisions today. Given the changed circumstances of society, the Hutchins Commission grappled with the question of what the role of a free press — or for that matter the First Amendment — is or should be today."
More than six decades after the report's publication, we're still wrestling with the issue. And on this point, unity built on other causes (press freedom, an end to violence against journalists) shows signs of fraying.
There are those who believe advocacy journalism is needed to give voices and faces to society's margins. In April 2000, Canadian journalist Sue Careless explained to colleagues that,
"...when the mainstream media ignores, trivializes or seriously distorts your cause or your community, then your cause or community needs its own media. If your people are never quoted or they are quoted inaccurately, if they are stereotyped or misinformation is spread about them, then they need their own face and voice. Every significant social movement has had its own media."
The fact that advocacy journalists openly disclose their leanings and affiliations is often compared favorably to traditional media's alleged penchant of masking its bias for the benefit of a) advertisers, b) the interests of owners and their friends, and c) friends in the elite corridors of power.
Three decades ago, "advocacy" was "alternative". The positioning was clear. It was coverage for the people by the people.
If "people" seemed to cover only those of a certain political bent, that was because alternative journalism was geared to break through barricades put up by an elitist media serving the powers-that-be. This was the era of national liberation movements rising against various strongmen and dictatorships (often propped up by world powers even as the latter declaimed about democratic ideals). Supporters of alternative and advocacy journalism staked their claim on the hundred year-old legacy of Chicago Post editorial writer Finley Peter Dunne, who is often credited for this line: "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
It's a great line but Dunne's fans didn't quite get it. Dunne, true to the spirit of Chicago and the times' robust, muck-raking journalism, penned that famous line in wry, sardonic Irish-brogue style:
"Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th'ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward.
(Just an aside: Dunne gained prominence in 1898, after his literary character, Mr. Dooley, celebrated the victory of Commodore George Dewey over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay.)
Back in Dunne's time, both op-ed writers and reporterss gleefully waved the flags of their causes. Over time, media organizations have come up with thick tomes on ethics. And still we argue. The din and clangor actually indicate the importance accorded media, whether the audience is the President or Mang Juan.
So, can reporters can "advocate" without being biased?
Yes, they can. For example, just ensuring that neglected issues -- say, domestic violence – see the light of day is an advocacy. Reporters can push to increase coverage on a serious (if sometimes, non-sexy) issue – like child’s rights or gay rights. Reporters can also play a major role in seeing that such issues are not trivialized. This is reasonable, even laudable.
Reporters are not stenographers and should go beyond he-said-she-said output. Sometimes, all that is needed to push an advocacy is context. Jon Stewart is not a journalist, but his Daily Show can teach us a thing or two about context. Some of his most effective clips involve nothing more than showing a public figure’s most recent statement and then following this with a contrasting message from an earlier period.
What a reporter should not do is climb the soapbox. A news report, a feature story is not a declamation or oratorical piece.
Getting the facts -- and getting them straight -- is also only half the battle. Advocacy journalists have to resist the temptation to censor the other side and shove out data that seemingly undermines one's position.
They also have to scale down the "telling" in favor of "showing." A reporter has no business calling a government official a liar. Citing conflicting statements and actions, or data that doesn’t add up, would present more graphic – and believable – proof of missteps or other more deliberate wrong-doings.
But this needs homework. If you do not review notes or other literature, chances are you won’t be able to ask a public figure to explain the seeming contradiction in statements and policies.
Advocacy journalism is not a license to throw out standards and ethical behavior. Advocacy is not an excuse to junk fairness as a requisite for any report. This holds for opinion writers, too.
The best way journalist-advocates can serve their cause is via good journalism. It is easier to convince readers and audience when a report is comprehensive, accurate and fair. Playing fast and loose with facts does your cause a disservice. You don’t have to be a journalist to understand this.