By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Photographs of an 80-year-old bonsai grower and a congressman with hair that senator-judge Miriam Santiago calls “iconoclastic” stirred controversy this week as the Corona impeachment trial resumed after a recess.
And the issue was whether the two daily broadsheets that printed the photos displayed malice or bias.
Demetrio Vicente who testified he bought land from Cristina Corona, wife of the Supreme Court chief justice, had suffered stroke twice. He mumbled on the witness chair and apologized for it.
The “Philippine Daily Inquirer” printed a montage of four close-up photos of Vicente testifying. Reactions ranged from “insulting” to “mean-spirited and vicious.” Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) called the photos “unflattering at least and malicious at most.”
Wednesday, when it came out on the “Inquirer” front page, I sat with four co-jurors of the Sandra Burton Nieman Fellowship for Filipino Journalists at the AIM Conference Center in Makati and guess what we talked about (aside from whom to send to Harvard this year): the paper’s handling of the photos.
The day before, “Philippine Star” published on its front-page a photo of Navotas City Rep. Tobias Tiangco, slouching, with his shoes off, at the Senate gallery. A columnist of another paper said the editors’ use of that photo instead of Tiangco testifying indicated the paper’s “anti-Corona leaning.”
“Star” treatment of the Tiangco story didn’t raise as much furor as “Inquirer” play-up of the Vicente photos. Defense lawyers didn’t complain against “Star” as they did against “Inquirer.” Even Tiangco apologized to the Senate: he was just tired, he said, and didn’t intend to show disrespect (at least, he quipped, his socks didn’t have a hole in them).
In contrast, the “Inquirer” admitted its mistake. The apology, CMFR said, suggested the paper failed to treat Vicente as a human being deserving of respect and didn’t consider that readers were “likely to add or read into their interpretation of the photos’ content.”
Could the editors have seen the flak coming as they decided which photos to use and how to use them? That’s their job but even they can’t guarantee they’ll make the right call all the time. When they fail, they can only look at how and why it happened and which safeguard wasn’t taken.
A compulsion to make the story and the page more interesting is what must have moved the “Inquirer” to use the series of photos that tell Vicente didn’t look pretty at the trial. And that’s what must have prompted the “Star” to use the image of Tiangco with unshod feet.
(Also see “Do editors pick a bad photo to make a news source look bad?” in Media’s Public of Aug. 12, 2011.)
At times, in the drive to perk up readers’ interest in the heat of deadline with competition adrenaline surging, mistakes are made. Sometimes, editors just don’t see audience outrage coming or don’t imagine it will be that furious.
A slip, a lapse maybe, but malice and bias against CJ Corona?
Individual bias among journalists can’t be ruled out (guys, they’re people just like everyone else) but a paper’s set of standards, especially fairness and accuracy, and its check-and-balance system, including collegial decision-making and post-publication review, are aimed to shut out collective bias and prevent the news medium from being reduced into a propaganda sheet.
But then it isn’t unimaginable for a paper to have decided to adopt Corona’s ouster as a crusade. Just as there may be media outlets that have chosen to defend the chief justice at whatever cost to their credibility.
Not unimaginable but unlikely.