How we get the news we don't deserve
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2007-11-11
The people's right to know is endangered by threats coming from external and internal sources.

Governments that are threatened by free speech will do what it can to block the free flow of information. We experienced strict censorship on all forms of freedom of expression during the martial law years under Marcos.

An even more pernicious roadblock to freedom of expression is prostituted journalism. Repressive regimes do not always use the strong arm tactics in quashing freedom of expression. In the Philippines, political patronage that goes way beyond wining and dining is bestowed on media.

Even without prostituting its news content, media can be the very source of the problem when media establishments adopt policies that influence the slant of news presentation.

That was the focus of the first of a series of lectures that the Foreign Correspondents of the Philippines (FOCAP) organized and launched last November 5 at the Ayala Museum in Makati City. The lecture series was named in honor of our late friend, comrade-in-arms and fellow STAR columnist Teddy Benigno.

Teddy founded FOCAP when he was still Bureau Chief of the Agence France Presse and he guided it through the difficult period of martial law when information was hard to access and even harder to publish.

Resource person for the lecture was Senior Correspondent for Al Jazeera, Tony Birtley.

Bred in controversy, suspected to be an Al Qaeda media outlet — Al Jazeera is the first major media outlet that had ventured to deliver the news from the Middle Eastern perspective. Birtley said that being mistakenly associated with Al Qaeda could not be avoided as Al Jazeera became the convenient main outlet of Al Qaeda media materials.

It got so bad that when Birtley was applying for a mortgage from a Swiss bank, the bank initially refused to deal with him because of the impression that he worked for a terrorist organization.

Al Jazeera is a legitimate media organization that was launched by the need to provide news from the Middle Eastern point of view. Al Jazeera was funded to the tune of $100 million by the Emir of Qatar and is staffed by professional journalists like Birtley.

Al Jazeera was a logical media product. The Middle East is a major global hot spot and most of the media coverage of the Western press has the tendency to be pro-US and pro-Israel. It must be noted that there is a very powerful Jewish influence in US media.

Al Jazeera's Mideast perspective does not in any way mean that its views and news evaluation is pro-Arab. It simply allows appreciation of a side of the news that hardly gets any attention from Western media.

Hollywood and the calculator

Birtley zoomed in on two things present in media that are causing media's present problems: "Hollywood and the calculator." He said that public fascination for showbiz news and the need for revenues create distortions that make it difficult for journalists to present the whole truth as it should be told.

Indeed, how easy it is for television networks to allot more news time for the Oscar Awards than to present the carnage in some place in the world where genocide is happening. Because a media company has to deliver a profit, there is the incessant pressure to cater to what the audience wants rather than to provide what the audience really needs.

Market competition drove television networks over a decade ago to assign the entertainment producers to repackage the news, to embellish it and make it rate better. Journalists still source the news but the producers repackage it to suit the audience preferences.

In our own local setting, notice how the obviously less important events are given more importance by the top rating TV news programs. A senseless barangay stabbing incident — which is a dime a dozen here — gets more play than a major step in the disarming of nukes in North Korea. The North Korea crisis can drag the Philippines into the vortex of a nuclear war and our top newscasts opt to give a barangay stabbing incident more prominence.

Having been a television network CEO myself, I often wondered how the current crop of TV news managers can stomach making inane showbiz items the main attraction of the evening's newscast. Our nation is drifting towards civil war and the biggest news is about the latest exchange between Ruffa Gutierrez and Yilmas Bektas, so big that teaser ads call attention to it during advertising breaks in order to keep the audience glued to the channel till the end.

Birtley pinpoints the preference for live on-the-spot coverage on TV news as one factor that had degraded content quality. Often times, Birtley commented, the journalist presenting on the scene will be unable to present a comprehensive coverage, unlike the journalist who is moored on developments in the foxholes of conflicts and the social sewers — the shelter of the rats of society.

The demand of the news networks for the 5-second sound byte within the 30-second topic coverage — in order to maintain a fast pace and keep audiences interested — effectively sacrifices content quality and news depth.

Birtley mentioned that there is also the tendency to be too localized in news reporting — one of the marketing considerations. It is typical that when a US network presents a new big bombing incident in Baghdad, a lone American fatality will become the focus of the news in the US even if there were 100 Iraqi fatalities from the blast.

Any distortion of the news can only be to the detriment of a society that relies on it for its information source.

  Previous Columns:

It had to happen on The Ides of March and Holy Week

Suggested guidelines for liability- free Internet posts

Election lawyer: PCOS critics should put up or shut up

All Excited by Pope Francis

A great disservice to P-Noy

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