Media's Public

CROSSING LINES. Press Secretary Andanar writes a column for a national broadsheet. The government hires blogger and Duterte-defender Uson. Media watchers deplore that the line is crossed. But lines have been blurred for some time now

By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]

RAUL Gonzales, then president Gloria Arroyo’s justice secretary, wrote a newspaper opinion column. So did her press secretary and Presidential Management Staff chief, the late Cerge Remonde from Cebu. Imee Marcos reportedly still writes a column for a tabloid in Manila. And President Duterte’s chief communication officer and propagandist Martin Andanar writes for a national broadsheet.

What’s wrong with that? A lot, say those who see conflict of interest and a crossing of lines.

Which may have a parallel in the case of Mocha Uson, a blogger who has been stoutly defending and loudly cheering for Duterte. Critics say it is a pay-off but can it not be also said of those in mainstream media who are rewarded through kin getting plum posts in government? Besides, Uson is in the realm of social media, which is still not bound by rules except liability for libel.

Line is there

But there’s indeed a line that CMFR or Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility says separate the two camps. The watchdog and the government it watches. “The monitor and the monitored.” Their interests often clash: Media calls out missteps and flaws. Government officials tend to hide or whitewash them.

Other than clashing interests, there are other reasons:

— The government already has its own media: a vast arsenal of broadcast stations and teams of communicators with access to most platforms, especially mainstream media. Its principal spokesman is the president himself who literally commands media attention. He has a bully pulpit from which anything he says is reported and commented on. And mainstream media itself provides space and time for government opinion and reply.

— The public tends not to recognize who among media opinion makers is the government person whose views must be taken with caution. CMFR compares journalists to people on a stage who work as surrogates of the public. Putting an elected or appointed government official on that stage may confuse the consumer.

— That also draws suspicion on the motive of the media outlet hiring the public official: to increase readership or ratings, curry favor from government, or appease leaders stung by its aggressive coverage or commentary?

What they prefer

Yet in the light of increasing evidence that many media consumers prefer to read news and opinion that support their personal beliefs, why won’t the media outlet meet the demand? Many readers who’re wild about Duterte prefer to read a columnist who gushes over the president.

Community newspapers have tried to solve the problem of conflict of interest with the compromise that (1) writers tied to the government or any other another job outside media cannot write for or about it, and (2) their other non-media work is disclosed.

Sun.Star, hard-pressed then as the other papers for lack of talented journalists in the job market, had to tap even those who couldn’t survive on media and had to work elsewhere. Lines were thus crossed but the curbs that the paper’s Code of Standards & Ethics (adopted in 1991, amended in 2004) may have helped.

Media conditions in Manila are not the same as media conditions in the communities. Just as, anywhere, media conditions now aren’t the same as media conditions before. Newspapers used to journalism’s rules and traditions are reviewing them to change or modify ideas that no longer work.

With social media overhauling preferences of consumers, knocking down many journalism traditions, a newspaper may no longer see the need for limiting its journalists to those who work exclusively for the interest of its public.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com]

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