Ethics and Biases: A Post-Mortem of Philippine Media During the 2016 Elections

Ethics and Biases: A Post-Mortem of Philippine Media during the 2016 Elections. Written by JM Nualla for SubSelfie.com.

The votes have been cast. The mudslinging has ended. And while Filipinos are anticipating the dawn of Duterte’s presidency, this may be a good time to reflect on how the media fulfilled their roles in covering the 2016 presidential elections.

Journalists who covered the elections and communication professionals who observed from the sidelines took time to step back and evaluate their own institution. Last May 21, 2016, ten alumni who now work for different media networks and non-government organizations exchanged learnings at the Asian Center for Journalism (ACFJ) of the Ateneo de Manila University.

During the height of the campaign period, some netizens criticized mainstream media for their supposed bias for and against certain candidates. Is this observation valid? The forum participants shed light to the operations of various media organizations:

The forum was livestreamed to fellow alumni of the Ateneo's Asian Center for Journalism.
The forum was livestreamed to fellow alumni.

Maintaining the High Ground

Majority of journalists from the TV networks explained how their respective news organizations prepared — from building briefers through their research teams months ahead of the campaign season, assigning embedded reporters for each candidate, conducting election roundtable discussions to the logistical requirements of the coverage.

ABS-CBN had a good practice wherein news personnel were asked to sign forms revealing their relations to candidates running for this year’s elections. This helped the managers identify possible areas for conflict of interest and make necessary ethical and editorial decisions from within their ranks to avoid claims of bias. GMA Network also instructed their staff to disclose the same, and those who were actively participating in the campaigns were asked to take a leave of absence. In the print media, some columnists took it upon themselves to take a break from writing for newspapers because of their involvement in the campaigns of certain candidates.

Recognizing the ever increasing importance of social media, news organizations have also become more proactive online — organizing dedicated social media teams that are tied up with their news websites.

GMA Network, for instance, instituted a new policy, where reporters from across their media platforms (TV, radio and online) have been converged for more efficient and comprehensive coverage. An example is when TV reporters were asked to do separate reports for radio and write stories for their news website. ABS-CBN made a similar policy two years ago.

The PiliPinas Debates also set the bar for a higher level of discourse among the electoral candidates. This was when engagement from the public was at its highest as seen from reactions on social media. Media networks were either praised or criticized for their debate formats, the choice of moderators and even the length of commercials in between gaps.

It is good to note that the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) commended TV5 for its Election Day coverage. The use of new technology did not just showcase spectacle but it also provided in-depth analyses of quick count data as they were coming in.

The Usual Suspects

Balancing the commercial and journalistic interests of news organizations has always been an issue in the media industry. This is mostly noticed during elections when candidates are not just news stories but also clients of media companies. They purchase air time for their political advertisements.

To be fair, the operations of news departments are separate from the marketing divisions of each media outfit. This means that editorial decisions of newsrooms, for the most part, are unaffected by revenue-generating interests. But the public is not very familiar with this. This was evident when anti-Duterte advertisements started broadcasting on television during the latter part of the campaign period. Some people thought television networks were attacking Duterte.

This issue is already out of the hands of journalists who are employees of these television networks. But this is something that media owners and their marketing executives should reflect on: their actions on the commercial side of the business will always affect their image as a news organization. They will always be interconnected.

The actual ownership of certain media outfits is also a point of contention. While it has been a standard practice for TV networks to disclose their connections to businesses they cover (like the Lopezes of ABS-CBN who also own SkyCable and Rockwell Land Corporation, and Manny V. Pangilinan of TV5 who has a stake in PLDT-Smart, Cignal TV, Philex Mining and Meralco), political interests and connections of some national and local media outfits were not so clear.

It’s easy to criticize media professionals for their shortcomings in this election coverage. But internal changes may have been a factor as well. Many of the major TV networks have downsized their manpower due to management decisions. In one TV station, critical trainings for journalists were replaced with technical workshops like scuba diving and drone camera operation.

Constant Challenges

For foreign news bureaus which only have a few people, covering all candidates was a constant challenge. During the ACFJ forum, one journalist described the candidates in terms of how it was easy to coordinate with them during the campaign period. Jejomar Binay, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas would send all the transcripts of their speeches. Poe’s camp was the most organized in the sense that transcripts were sent an hour or two hours after a speech was delivered.

Schedules were also sent through their press buzz, although Binay’s camp would send theirs a little too late, just a day before the event. Incoming President Rodrigo Duterte was the hardest to cover because he did not have a press buzz and his team was so busy they could not be easily reached for his schedules compared with other candidates. There had also been several instances when media would wait for him in his supposedly scheduled event but he would not show up.

Journalists complained of being too exhausted from covering all of Duterte’s campaign events that they could not cover his midnight sorties because they had deadlines to meet for news stories of the day. This is one reason why no media outfit was able to catch his infamous rape remark which was captured on amateur video and posted online. They were only able to report about it days after it happened.

But prior to Duterte’s lead in the surveys, one journalist shared the impression that many news organizations covered the elections on the basis of the dominant political parties instead of giving equal airtime to candidates.

While the daily coverage of the campaign trail gave the impression of equal billing for each candidate, there was an assumption that for the most part, the media unconsciously allowed the candidates to set the news agenda.

This may be observed in the way controversies were put in the spotlight. Political strategists saw these as maneuvering tactics for each candidate to either improve publicity or derail the image of rival candidates. This led to the usual “he said, she said” stories where for instance, an accused candidate would be interviewed then the media would include reactions from rival candidates.

A media manager explained that the resources spent by the network for the reporters may be a factor. Since they spent money for the transportation, equipment and crew just to cover the story, they would still air or publish the reports even if they knew that those were rehashed stories.

The obsession of national media with soundbites or quotes from the subjects is also to blame, according to one communication specialist. Instead of really educating the people about each candidate’s platforms and qualifications, the news narrative has boiled down to an exchange of the most sensational statements from the candidates.

Identifying Borders

The continuing ethical issues surrounding some journalists became a topic as well.

There have been cases where reporters left their media outfits to help the campaigns of certain candidates. Some were also offered to work as anonymous bloggers-for-hire, with rates as high as P50,000 per month, to write political propaganda for the candidates.

This election season has also seen one of the most polarizing moments in our history, and social media is seen as the main culprit. Netizens and journalists used Facebook and Twitter as sources of information and it has brought into light the dangers of paid and unpaid social media trolls, fake news sites, citizen journalism blogs and even the social media properties of mainstream media.

A good case study for future social media management would be the various mistakes committed by the social media accounts of the major news networks. There was the error of publishing erroneous partial and unofficial poll counts in their infographics that were immediately taken down and remedied by GMA News and CNN Philippines. A social media producer of GMA News also mistakenly posted his/her personal opinion on the official Facebook page of the news organization instead of his/her personal account.

The sad story lies within the ranks of journalists who used their personal social media accounts to express their biases. One unfortunate incident was between two journalists who had a heated exchange over their preferred candidates, eventually leading them to unfriend each other on Facebook.

But more than strained relationships, the bigger issue here is when media people forget that their online behavior should be treated with respect to their positions as journalists.

The Need to Do Better

This election period is seen as an important milestone for future election coverage, given the increasing influence of social media, the rise of the millennial generation and the growing public participation.

The speed by which news are shared may be faster than ever before, and news organizations may be facing fierce competition from bloggers and netizens with regard to agenda-setting. However, journalists are in a very important position of harnessing public engagement and setting the bar by providing properly verified information, and analytical news stories which are unbiased.

The election coverage does not end with the determination of winners. It is also the task of media to report if candidates are truthful with their campaign expenditures and fund sources. With reports of celebrities and well-known online personalities being paid to endorse candidates to their millions of followers, it is now the duty of journalists to find out what the implications of these expenditures to the rules of COMELEC are.

Here lies the challenge: will journalists and media owners address the issues identified in the forum? Or will they just keep on doing what they’ve been used to and let themselves be drowned by the threat of the changing landscape?

The author with the other journalists and communicators present at the Ateneo ACFJ forum on how the media covered the 2016 elections
The author with fellow journalists and communicators present at the Ateneo ACFJ forum on how the media covered the 2016 elections

UPDATE as of August 30, 2016: This article has been revised to reflect some comments from a journalist in ABS-CBN (i.e. the Lopezes have already sold their stake in Meralco and Bayantel).

[Entry 140, The SubSelfie Blog] 

About the Author:

JM Nualla

JM Nualla is the Social Media Head of SubSelfie.com. He is presently a Producer of CNN Philippines. He also serves as an Assistant Professor in iACADEMY, teaching scripwriting and mentoring thesis projects. Previously, he was a Segment Producer for the GMA News Special Assignments Team and Senior Producer/Online Content Manager for Claire Delfin Media. Beyond his career, JM is a follower of Jesus, a frustrated mountaineer/traveler/adventurer, and a hopeful romantic. Broadcast Communication 2009, PUP Manila. MA Journalism 2014, Ateneo de Manila. Read more of his articles here.

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