“Mulling over all reactions... I will say this: there is little talk (nor thought) of ratings when lives hang on the balance. And however flawed coverage may be -- and there will always be flaws -- journalists do care about the lives they cover. But like the authorities and the comfortable we are professionally bound to afflict, media will have to listen with grace to criticism.”
I’ve had one good friend pooh-pooh the above statement, written mid-morning after a mostly sleepless night (as most journalists hereabouts must have experienced). After a couple more hours of gazing at the ceiling and reviewing Internet clips of yesterday’s Quirino Grandstand tragedy (all stations) and what radio stations reported (all stations), I am standing by that statement.
At the Manila Pen, at the Bicutan siege, at other incidents, I evoked media’s duty to cover events as they unfold. I know that is not the core issue now being raised by critics of our profession. Last night and today, the angry reactions focused on a couple of things:
• Live coverage of the hostage-taking incident;
• Erroneous or premature reports (of the number of dead, for example)
• Pandering to dismissed cop Fernando Mendoza’s “grandstanding”;
• Letting SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza, brother of the hostage-taker, go primetime with his drama – and in the process provoking the dismissed cop into acts of violence; and
• Doing step-by-step accounts of the assault on Mendoza.
(This post does not aim to critique the cops’ performance or the national government’s response (or non-response) to the hostage crisis. Let’s leave that for another post.)
In its “Guidelines for Covering Hostage-Taking Crises, Prison Uprisings, Terrorist Actions,” Poynter.org states:
“Challenge any gut reaction to "go live" from the scene of a hostage-taking crisis, unless there are strong journalistic reasons for a live, on-the-scene report. Things can go wrong very quickly in a live report, endangering lives or damaging negotiations. Furthermore, ask if the value of a live, on-the-scene report is really justifiable compared to the harm that could occur.”
I have always had one simple rule of thumb. Journalists cover events. Newspaper, radio, television and Internet teams will always try to present an unfolding story from varied vantage points. When authorities tell us to desist from live coverage, we consider that (notice the caveat in the above cited rule).
When media does live coverage, then it must consider what to air and not to air. It is true that live coverage is dangerous: It is harder to do the usual gate-keeping work like double-checking facts and choosing one’s words, especially when reporters themselves are in the line of fire.
There are reasons that media go live and not everything has to do with ratings.
Yes, ratings are a given in television and radio, and hits for web-based media enterprises. The race can lead to sensationalized reporting and dog-eat-dog scenarios where the focus is on the competition and not on the story or its repercussions. But that should not blind us to other facets of our national reality.
There are reasons why desperate people in this country -- whether they are contemplating suicide, fleeing for their lives or holding people hostage -- run to media. These reasons have also a lot to do with the murders of journalists in this country. However problematic some journalists are; however shaky their ethics, in many areas of this nation they are sometimes the only people standing between powerful groups and individuals and the communities they seek to cow.
Quirino grandstand, of course, is not in the boondocks. It looms over Luneta, in the heart of Manila, the center of power in this archipelago. Manila is also where, not too long ago, a naked man flipped and flopped on cold tiles as his prick and balls were jerked here and there by another man we’d all been taught to respect as our protector.
Manila is where Mendoza was once accused of entrapping and extorting from a young man (though there are friends and colleagues who insist Mendoza was the good guy framed by rich and powerful malefactors). Manila is also where soldiers seeking redress are silenced by edict, by arrest or by other means. Manila, let us not forget, is also where men grabbed Jonas Burgos, who remains missing to this day. (Yes, we have failed to cover other victims and yes, sometimes it is because a story is not 'sexy'.)
I do not know if Gregorio was indeed an accessory to a crime (there is no acceptable excuse for hostage-taking). He wasn’t a gatecrasher. Rightly or wrongly, he was asked to help. He identified too well with the suspect; not surprising as they were brothers.
I do know this. If a man before me cries that he is being persecuted and on the verge of being disappeared (temporarily or permanently), I will not turn my back on him. I will not interfere when cops wrestle him into submission, but neither will I pretend to be blind.
Should there have been an instant decision to impose a news blackout so as not to provoke the hostage-taker?
The entire day’s coverage was live. Cops and officials agreed to interviews knowing the incident was being covered live. They ordered the arrest and grabbed Gregorio knowing coverage was live. No journalist or cop has noted any request – anywhere, any time, to anyone –that live coverage stop.
Having said that, I must stress the following points:
Media should try to resist talking to a hostage-taker (certainly, not interview him live). The hostage-taker may suddenly decide to transform an interview into a negotiation. And journalists have no business being negotiators. Period.
If we get an unsolicited call from a hostage-taker, we should just take down whatever is said but not get involved in any bargaining ploy;
Nor are we psychologists, so let’s not jeer at the hostage-taker; certainly not in his hearing;
We are not negotiators so we shouldn’t even debate on the pros or cons of a hostage-taker’s conditions. Nor should we listen to those who want that debate;
There should be no step-by-step accounts of assault operations. That is a different call from live reporting. Even when the authorities fail to request for such, journalists should try to keep it in mind. If reporters (who in the ‘heat of battle’ may not be able to pull back from the fray) start giving away information, superiors should find a way close the gates – or head off reporters to safer realms.
Of course, in an age where mobile phones can take sharp still and video images, when kids can afford to buy Flip cameras, one could argue that the rest of the world could put one over media. (Certainly, a friend of a hostage-taker could give him those sensitive images and in the crush – a teenager got hit in the crossfire! -- the effort would have been missed.)
These developments add pressure to media work. But the world is already a terribly complicated place, where roles of lawmen and lawbreakers merge in an unholy mess and the law itself acts like shifting sand. We journalists would serve this world better by trying to record these changes without getting trapped in the muck. We must thus learn better to sidestep the dangers.
It is hard keeping pace with a world where today is already on the verge of being passé. Especially when, at the same time, modern technology sometimes fails us: Audio can fail and desks and reporters, whether from the print, broadcast or digital media, could get cut off from each other. But we just have to try. And we are.
We cannot always agree with our audience. But we will always agree that they, too, share our best intentions – even when they call ours to question.