News: No longer for sale

Institutionalized. Chay Florentino-Hofilena used this word to describe corruption in the Philippine media. She exposed in “News for sale: the corruption and commercialization of the Philippine Media” the bad and the ugly, the muck and shame in the institution—reflections of the media’s grave ethical lapses in the 2004 elections.

Spanning television, radio and print, the study revealed how politicians and media men alike used and abused the institution through corruption and commercialization to wield its power to shape opinion and deliver votes.
Despite the grim picture, the industry presses on to find solutions—a vital decision especially with the next election year fast-approaching.

In the 2004 elections, corruption, commercialization and conflict of interest hounded newspapers, television and radio stations. Old and new forms of corruption coexisted as politicians included reporters in the payroll through retainers, monthly fees, “ATM and envelopmental journalism”, and even through cellphone loads. Others bribed journalists with perks, women, tickets, VIP treatment, coverage subsidies, positions, houses, luxury, and cars.

To what end? Politicians wanted to influence the coverage, angling, editing and airing of stories to their advantage or their competitors’ disadvantage, to muzzle damaging news, to advance their interest, and, ultimately, to win the elections.

With the lifting of political advertising ban in 2004, media commercialization became more blatant. The once under-the-table contracts now had legitimate fronts, making media bolder in selling airtime and space to candidates. The problem worsened when media combined legitimate advertising with packages selling news and coverage that ought to be independent and without price tags.

Rate cards varied among radio stations, but the offers remained the same—embedded journalists, positive news, constant exposure, and live interviews. Editors and reporters of some tabloids even banded together to sell their service, running stories with similar angle and treatment to boost or destroy candidates. Despite the lifting of the ad ban, politicians still resorted to under-the-table packages to circumvent election rules on maximum airtime exposure.

The entry of entertainment press also posed problems in the last election. The coverage they provided lacked the political press’ standards in ethics and journalism, thus, blurring the lines between news and press release, advertising and showbiz. One example was the open “envelopmental journalism” during entertainment press conferences which, according to Florentino-Hofilena, seemed to be their norm.

Biases of media company owners, ratings and journalists seeking public position are also issues in 2004. Editors were in constant dilemma because their bosses disregarded journalism standards for income and friendship. TV stations needed to keep ratings high so they used showbiz intrigues instead of economic platforms in the news. Lastly, coverage became difficult because journalists running for position still wielded influence in the newsroom.

The three media ethical dilemmas in the 2004 elections— conflict of interest, corruption and commercialization—go against four journalism values identified by Edmund Lambeth in “Committed Journalism.”

Truth-telling topped the list because of inaccuracies, sensationalism and biased reporting influenced by money. Add to this the absence of corroboration in the use of press releases and single sources who could pay to have their sides aired. Distortion of information was prevalent in the last election.

Journalism freedom and independence were at stake because of bribery, partisan owners and corruption. Ratings and income not journalism values controlled the news. Journalists and entire media organizations were bought, turning them into propaganda automatons, no longer watchdogs and gatekeepers.

Justice and fairness in news tilted in favor of the moneyed and influential. Instead of being forums for voters’ education, media turned into auction houses where only the rich and powerful got coverage. Balance in news presentation fell prey to candidates’ ability to pay.

Lastly, by being slaves to corruption and commercialization, media institutions failed in their responsibility to bring relevant information to people, to help shape opinion and help voters make more responsible decisions. Media stewardship was compromised by irresponsible and unethical journalism.

Everyone is affected by this issue because the country decides on its future during elections. Citizens rely on the media to decide on whom to vote for. When stations and newspapers give biased reports, voters are cheated of their rights and made to believe lies. The media, too, including editors, reporters, writers, anchors and researchers are at stake because their credibility hangs on responsible and honest journalism. Candidates and owners have their own interests to think about—the former, the election outcome; the latter, ratings, profit and image.

The problems of media corruption and commercialization are not without solution however. A triumvirate of the fairness and justice, universal good and virtue approaches can stand a chance in the search for answers. The first approach demands balanced and humane treatment of all candidates—covering each by the merit of issues, not by popularity or financial capability. The second, demands advancing the common good, in this case, giving up unethical practices that may compromise reporting and exploit voters. Lastly, the virtue approach encourages solutions that are consistent with ideal values prized by humanity—honesty, courage, integrity, and self-control.

Due to the intricacy of the issue, a good solution is a process that starts with recognition of the problem and ends with prevention of recurrence. First, media institutions need to heed studies on their performance on past elections to see patterns and know where to begin. Second, after identifying the problems and clarifying the standards, definitions and issues, it is a must to reeducate everyone—owners, advertisers, politicians, reporters, editors, voters—on the basics of journalism ethics, news values, the omnibus election code, and media policies. Media must also review existing ethics codes to know what needs to be improved and which provisions need to be stressed during election coverage. Third, journalists must have the temerity to implement existing codes like the Philippine Press Institute-National Press Club and the Society of Profession Journalists Codes of Ethics. They can partner with media monitoring bodies like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, non-government organizations like the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, or create in-house monitoring arms that will help censor and censure erring members. Lastly, media institutions have to enjoin people by encouraging them to volunteer as watchdogs of the watchdogs, to critically evaluate news, and even to do the extremes like boycotting newspapers, radio and TV stations that keep on doing unethical practices.

In the 2010 elections, the country can learn from the campaign of President Barack Obama. For now, television is king, but the internet is slowly gaining influence. In fact, the latest ranking of, a credible source of internet usage statistics, names the Philippines 10th top internet country in Asia. This reveals the power of online news sites, blogging and Social Networking Sites as emerging platforms. It is, thus, imperative for media institutions to set standards on online reporting, to be wary of the difference between journalist and non-journalist bloggers, and to push for laws that will make the internet a more credible and responsible source of information.
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