Saturday, November 11, 2006

In Search of a Responsible Press

May 4, 2006

DAVAO CITY -- After all these years, it comes down to this—rummaging through files in search of ideas and opinions to share. Call it a suppressed desire to mentor the young, but when it comes to the writing craft, I'd fish out archived prose anytime to share to others, if only I had enough of them. Well, happily, here's one: a somewhat personal testament to the working press, delivered last year before the Rotary Club of Waling-Waling.

I am pleased to say to you that this isn't the first time I've met with the Rotary. The more recent one was last December, when the NGO I represented then, the Mindanao Center for Peace and Development, collaborated with the Rotary Club of East Davao.

The MCPD was on its fourth year of giving awards to Mindanao journalists. We were recognizing those who wrote stories about conflict in Mindanao, but these stories were written not to sensationalize the war but to inspire others to work for peace. The Rotary Club of East Davao was an important supporter of that initiative, along with our other partners, the Philippine Information Agency and the ANFLO Group of Companies.

The reason I'm telling you this is that I'd like to acknowledge the role of civic organizations in improving the quality of community journalism. The state of the local press, as you most probably know, leaves much to be desired. Before we can even talk about responsible journalism, we must look at how the press goes about its business, and how it comports itself. And sadly, for an institution whose rights and freedoms are protected by no less than the Constitution, the press is fraught with many weaknesses and even excesses.

Competent, qualified reporters and editors are hard to come by. Radio and TV anchormen, not to mention some columnists, continue to moonlight as PR agents of politicians and businessmen. And because of this basic flaw in the industry, we read stories without depth, listen to broadcast commentaries that glorify or slander an official, and endure television segments on the accomplishments of politicians passed off as legitimate news.

This is not the press that we, the public, deserve. Yet finding fault is one thing; venturing into the root causes is quite another—which leads us to ask why, for such a noble profession, media practitioners allow themselves to be less than what's expected of them.

Largely, the answer lies in economics. Community reporters, especially the radio anchormen, are among the poorest paid employees. And so long as they are marginalized, they will continue to seek other sources of income, even if these do not sit well with the ethics and standards of journalism. Partly, too, the answer lies in some of the owners of media establishments, who may not always be filled with enough civic sense, or idealism—to inspire young reporters to do the job right despite the low pay.
To be sure, journalism isn't an easy job. Responsible journalists must be well read, inquisitive to a fault, and very hard working. Above all, they must be able to write fairly well, with an eye for detail and a commitment to the facts. Journalists must be beholden to absolutely no one, not to mayors and congressmen, not to big businessmen, not to rebel leaders. This fierce independence is what defines the mettle of the journalist.

Which is, by most standards, a tough act to follow. For even if reporters were paid reasonably, and even if some of the publishers, editors, and station managers had the good sense to instill some high purpose in the newsroom, the demands of the trade would still be daunting—if not dangerous.

In our city alone, social issues cry out for attention and concerted response. The killing of our minors. The persistence of illegal drugs and child prostitution. The disturbing state of our watersheds, Sex in the Internet. Corruption in high places.

And how must the true journalist respond to these—and a host of many other problems—without risking life and limb? It can't be done. There is really no way a journalist can have the best of both worlds, simply because seeking out the truth and asking the right questions can have the direst consequences.

But, as the saying goes, that's par for the course. Which is why, all the more, the media needs the full support of the community.

Support, in fact, may have been slow in coming, but steady. Only recently, the MCPD teamed up with The British Council in organizing a workshop for the Davao media. For six days at the Eden Mountain Resort, both neophyte and veteran reporters exchanged views about their work, interacted with their British counterparts, and resolved to address the dilemmas they faced when covering the news.

Small steps, these may be. And time may be running out, considering how rapidly our society is changing. With over 30 million cell phone subscribers nationwide, people tend to believe texted rumors more than our newspaper headlines.

But there is no other alternative but to hope. If we believe in our capacities to transcend ourselves, then we must have faith in the capacity of our journalists to exceed our expectations. For only when we understand their limitations and potentials, and only when we begin to work with them can we fully appreciate their indispensable role as the true watchdogs of our community?



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