TRUTH-telling and accuracy are the fundamental ethical and professional commitments of the alternative press and media in furtherance of the people’s right to know. Truth telling is crucial to the journalistic task of developing among the media audiences the subjective readiness for the changes in society that objective reality so patently demonstrates are needed. Precisely because those in the alternative media are so engaged, they have been harassed, threatened, physically assaulted, and red-baited.
There are of course the joys of knowing
that, at the end of each working day, one has added rather than detracted from
the sum of human knowledge despite the odds against it. Disinformation is
nevertheless still a continuing hindrance to the understanding of what is
happening in these isles of fear. It is neither a new phenomenon nor rare, but
public attention and understanding of its dangers has been relatively limited. What is therefore needed is for the
alternative press and media to proactively campaign for the adoption of the
strategies needed to combat disinformation in addition to discharging their
responsibility of providing the relevant and accurate information the people
need in these times of peril to their lives and liberties.
Combating disinformation demands the involvement of a number of actors. The alternative media are only one of those actors. But because they understand the empowering role of information in the democratization of political power and society, they can play a leading role in this effort.
Even in the corporate press, today’s poisoned political atmosphere, in which false information has become the norm, has outraged and provoked some practitioners into exposing the fraudulence of regime claims and deepening their commitment to getting at the truth. The alternative media must engage and encourage these practitioners in doing this difficult and even dangerous task of public enlightenment.
In the Philippine setting, the
Constitutional protection of press freedom, free expression and freedom of
assembly thrusts upon government the responsibility of supporting those freedoms
in order to encourage the development of an independent press and the informed
public critically engaged in public affairs. It need hardly be said that
attempts intimidation, harassment and attacks on the press are completely at
odds with that duty, and that least of all should such assaults come from
government. But given the current
reality, in which the Duterte administration has made it its business to even
involve independent journalists and media organizations in alleged plots to
destabilize it, it will take concerted and united citizen action to compel government
observance of its constitutional duty to protect and enhance press freedom and
That imperative will not be served by
the passing of any law against the generation and dissemination of fake news
and disinformation as Singapore has recently done, which is likely to have a
negative impact on free expression. As detrimental to public discourse and even
as dangerous as disinformation can be, combating “fake news” via legislation
will serve only regime ends and will do more harm than good. As part of its
duty to hold the government to its responsibilities under a Constitutional
order, the alternative media must oppose any attempt to curtail free expression
by using the need to curb “fake news” as the excuse.
The government itself can do worse than
to reform its own media system, which has been accused of generating and
spreading false information, towards, first of all, making that system
financially and politically independent. Only during the Corazon Aquino
administration was this seriously considered. The then head of the Philippine
Information Agency (PIA), Dr. Benjamin Lozare of the UP Institute (now College)
of Mass Communication proposed it, but failed to obtain enough support to make
it a reality. During the Benigno Aquino III administration, the head of the
Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO), Herminio Coloma, floated
the idea of making the system independent of whatever regime is in power, but
that did not prosper either.
During his first year in office, President
Duterte said in one speech that government media could “copy” the BBC model.
That model consists of the BBC’s being funded through a mandated share of the
taxes on TV and radio sets and other means of information transmission. It will
require congressional action and presidential approval for that model to be
adopted. But as we all know, nothing came of Mr. Duterte’s declaration either.
Part of the reforms needed in that
system is also the retraining of its editorial staff not only in terms of
skills enhancement but also in reorienting it from its public relations focus
to a public information perspective, in which the system would cease to report
merely on whatever regime is in power, but even on the opposition and government
critics in furtherance not only of the journalistic imperatives of truth
telling, accuracy and fairness but also for the making of the truly informed
citizenry that this rumored democracy needs.
What is also needed is the institution
in both the public school system as well as in private schools of media or news
literacy programs, starting at the primary grades up to the tertiary level.
Citizen understanding of what constitutes news, how it is gathered, processed
and disseminated, the values and standards of the press, as well as of the
political and economic interests behind the media can help them not only to
distinguish disinformation from news, but also enable them to demand better
Citizen awareness of the ethical and
professional values of journalism is as important in checking the veracity of
what appears in both the old media of print and broadcasting as well as online,
particularly in social media. A media literate public can be so informed as to
demand that the press and media observe their own standards of truth-telling
Media organizations should themselves
encourage citizen media literacy, and should make fact-checking not only the
claims of news sources but also their own intended issuances standard practice.
The alternative media must be at the forefront of this effort. Fact checking
has always been an imperative in professional journalism, but has received
greater emphasis in the present era. The good news is that Facebook has engaged
Rappler and Vera files in fact checking social media posts and a consortium of
journalism schools and media organizations is similarly engaged. Media advocacy
groups as well as civil society groups have also taken it upon themselves to
release lists of online sites that are not trustworthy and which have a record
of disseminating false information.
But fact checking alone is not enough. A
purported news report may be factually accurate but may be so framed as to
provide viewers, readers and listeners a mistaken understanding of an event or
issue. The absence of context, which is a frequent failing of Philippine media,
similarly leads to the media audiences’ failure to understand the meaning
behind the news. This thrusts upon the
country’s journalism schools the responsibility of enhancing their capacity to
better train the next generations of journalists beyond the usual five Ws and
H, which should include critical assessment of such conventions of journalism
as what decides the news worthiness of an event, and the hoary notion of
The news value of prominence— which declares
that an event is newsworthy if a famous, notorious or well-known individual or
group is involved—is among those conventions. In practice this news value often
consists of reporting whatever the powerful say, usually without putting it in
context or even interpretation, which in some cases results in the media
audiences’ accepting as true whatever such news sources say, no matter how
false or absurd it may be. In most cases, the same news value marginalizes the
poor and powerless even if they have a legitimate grievance or something to say
about an issue that directly concerns them.
As for the supposed need for
“objectivity,” it is a mantra that has been drummed into the heads of
generations of journalists, despite the fact that every form of writing— and
journalism is no exception— involves the selection of what details to include
in describing an object or a scene, or in reporting an issue or event.
As University of London Professor of
Semiotics Gunther Kress points out, in trying to explain the world to others,
journalists exclude as much as they include details in their reports, and in
that sense do not simply record reality but instead interpret it.
In addition, as Massachusetts Institute
of Technology Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and social critic Noam Chomsky
points out, objectivity in practice also means quoting the powerful and further
marginalizes the already disempowered sectors of society.
The selective process in journalism
compels practitioners to choose what to emphasize and what to omit both in the
lead and the body of a news story. The lead controls how a report is “framed”—meaning
its focus on what the journalist thinks is the core of the event or issue being
reported. The way a report is presented to the media audience helps shape the
way viewers, listeners or readers perceive events and issues, and how they will
interpret them, and perhaps do something about it.
“Framing” is also part of the
agenda-setting function of the news media—their capacity to influence audience
perception of events and issues in the news in terms of what is important. A
statement by the President of the Republic critical of the United States human
rights record in the Philippines in the course of a speech on foreign affairs
policy, in which he also announces a pledge of additional aid from China
despite its incursions into the West Philippine Sea, for example, can be
“framed” as either a break from the US, or as an opening to the country’s next
How that event is framed helps set the
agenda of public discourse and will determine what the media audience will
regard as important. Will it be the future of Philippines-US relations, and its
implications on the economy, national defense and security, or the
administration’s claim that it is pursuing an independent foreign policy?
The above observations need to be part
of any media and news literacy program, as well as of the curriculum in the
country’s journalism schools, together with an emphasis on the ethics of truth
telling and the professional standard of accuracy.
Online, what has been tried is the
adoption of such algorithms as step by step instructions on how to establish
the credibility of news sites, among which is looking at its track record and
its reputation, as well as how long it has been functioning as a news source.
While all these can help combat the spread of disinformation, what is crucial is the public’s education on the role, the values and the responsibilities of the press and media, whether old or new, and I would thus argue for the urgent adoption of media literacy programs not only in our schools but also in the programs of non-profit and media organizations that deal not only with their own internal populations but with the public as well. Again, let me emphasize that the alternative media should also be engaged in this effort. We must go beyond truth telling, and into the urgent need to combat disinformation through these and other initiatives.
This article was part of the speech delivered by Altermidya national chairperson Luis V. Teodoro at the Altermidya 3rd National Congress on September 23-36, 2019 in Quezon City.