THE media are not rising up to the challenge of providing the electorate with informed and intelligent reportage on the elections.
This was the sentiment expressed by representatives from various broadcast and print media organizations who attended an afternoon roundtable discussion yesterday on “Monitoring News Media Coverage of the Elections” conducted by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).
Their basis: CMFR’s “Citizens’ Media Monitor” project that reviewed the coverage of the 2004 elections by the three leading broadsheets — Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin — and six television news programs from broadcast networks GMA 7, ABS-CBN 2, Studio 23 and ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC).
A first in the history of Philippine elections, the study was conducted from February 10 to May 8, 2004 and which CMFR is again doing for this year’s polls.
Conspicuously absent — again — from the CMFR’s media monitoring though are radio programs and tabloids, which happen to be the media of choice of the common tao. This has somehow put into question the extensiveness of the 2004 monitor given the scant demographics of broadsheet readers compared to those who read the tabloids.
Nonetheless, the findings of the CMFR project are a timely reminder to members of the media now that they are once more in the thick of campaign coverage for the elections in May.
Among its key findings are the following:
- The coverage offered few surprises but there was an effort on the part of some of the news organizations to deepen the public’s capacity to make informed choices in the elections, citing the Inquirer and Star for their front-page stories on issues like population, charter change, national debt, and the views of the candidates on them.
- TV shows which focused on issues were aired late at night, and so were not widely watched as the news programs.
- There was a conscious effort to cover all the candidates equally. There was no bias in terms of focusing solely on certain candidates rather than others. Individual cases of biased reporting did not seem to be a matter of editorial policy and were very likely the consequence of individual reporters’ preferences.
- Though outside the monitor’s scope, CMFR observed a bias for presidential candidates: Senator Panfilo Lacson in the case of Malaya, and the late Fernando Poe Jr. for the Tribune. The government station, Nation Broadcasting Network (NBN 4), favored Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
- Newspapers showed more restraint in their reporting than TV news programs, which was evident in their refusal to sensationalize comedian Dolphy’s remark and the rape charge against former Senator John Osmeña.
- The coverage of both print and broadcast media also gave scant attention or ignored altogether the local, party-list, and senatorial elections (mainly focused on presidential) and policy or development issues (coverage of TV was mostly focused on campaign sorties).
- Political controversies were also a continuing focus — Poe’s disqualification and Arroyo’s alleged use of govt funds to pay Nora Aunor P6.2 million so she would endorse her election.
- Public opinion polls were given undue prominence both in TV and print, treating them as either banner or lead stories. Such expansive treatment tended to create misleading impressions about the nature of public opinion. Reports often lacked context and analysis and tended to create pointless controversy about the findings.
During the discussions, media practitioners agreed that the power of the media, especially television, to shape public opinion cannot be overemphasized. In a country perennially glued to teleseryes and showbiz talk shows, this penchant for televiewing sadly does not extend to public affairs programs, the venue for getting a more comprehensive profiling of the candidates and their stands on issues.
Since television programs are market-driven, “viewer-friendly” shows dominate primetime while the public affairs programs are relegated to time slots when most of the viewers are sound asleep, making them least effective tools in disseminating information to the general public.
Add to this the fact that news, while it can reach a broader audience because of its primetime slot, also suffer from serious flaws owing to a lack of context given the limited time to present the stories and the constraints of deadline.
It was suggested that a European model be used to address this problem. In France for example, government requires that a time slot be allocated to programs dedicated to discussions on social and political issues where academicians, intellectuals and policy makers are invited to shed light on the issues of the day. These programs are shown in strategic time slots when they can reach the widest audience.
Another suggestion is to train reporters specifically for election coverage, which should include acquiring a basic working knowledge on the Omnibus Elections Act, Fair Elections Act, Absentee Voting Act, other election related laws, and the Philippine Constitution.
Revisiting basic journalistic definitions was also recommended, foremost of which is the issue of objectivity — “Is it just getting one candidate’s statement and giving an opportunity for the other to issue his denials and comments, or is it going beyond the statements and putting them in context based on past issues and events?”
The discussions also emphasized the following points:
- The need for a more active participation of the media in educating the public about the candidates
The election period should be a time when the electorate can scrutinize the candidates who are wooing their votes.
The media should focus more on a comprehensive profiling of the candidates, their platform, their previous records and their stand on issues rather than following the candidates on their sorties and reporting which provinces they have been campaigning. Showing a candidate waving to a crowd, albeit a different crowd everyday, does not accomplish anything, it does not provide an informed choice.
- The need for the media to be more vigilant in making the candidates accountable for their statements, actions and stand on past issues
Noting how in U.S. elections the media are able to compile every statement a candidate makes, take it apart and throw it back to the one who made the statement, it is also expected that the Philippine media as watchdog in a democracy should be able to do this without fear or bias.
For example, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo makes a comment that she does not want to answer political questions, the media should make a story on why the president doesn’t want to answer political questions. Or when Senator Joker Arroyo, a staunch critic of the administration, joins the administration ticket, the media should not be afraid to ask him how much he’s getting in campaign funds to join the administration.
Lala Ordenes-Cascolan recently came on board as a PCIJ writer-researcher.