Fact, Fake, Freedom: The Battle of Filipino Journalists in an Era of Misinformation

The latest death toll from the war on drugs flashes on the screen.

Official police data says the toll nears 4,000 deaths, but according to Human Rights Watch, the numbers reach up to 12,000.

Carlos*, an executive producer for a news documentary for a major television channel in Manila, sighs as he reads the toll. Counting deaths has become a mundane part of news consumption everyday. He checks the comments section of a documentary video his team has recently produced. Carlos is part of the team which investigated allegations against local authorities who turn a blind eye on extrajudicial killings in the city. He reads one comment “You are fake news.” He reads another comment, this time more slowly, “Careful or you’ll be part of the next death toll.”

From personal messages to public posts on social media, the internet has become a toxic, fearful place for many journalists in the Philippines. Fake news. Paid hacks. You should die and get raped by drug addicts. Corrupt. Partisan. You are too ugly to become a journalist. The criticisms continue in the comments section without an ounce of decency or decorum. Whether these comments come from trolls, bots, or real people, the media landscape in the country has become a hostile environment especially for journalists who publish critical reports against the government.

Media as Targets

These blatant accusations and threats are not isolated. No less than the most powerful man in the country is accusing the media of publishing misinformation and “fake news.” On February 20, President Rodrigo Duterte banned local news website Rappler’s reporter from covering his official events. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque says Duterte disfavors the reporter. “She can’t have access now to the President because the President is irritated at her,” Roque says.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has also threatened to revoke its license following an alleged ownership violation. Rappler is known for its critical reportage of Duterte’s policies, particularly on the war on drugs.

Lian Buan (also part of SubSelfie.com) works as a multimedia reporter for Rappler for more than a year now. She says reporting has indeed become difficult after the President called Rappler as a “fake news outlet.” “We are now in an environment where we are not only discredited but also silenced. It is frightening,” she says.

Journalism, by profession, is responsible for reporting the truth. By accusing the media of peddling misinformation, their reputation and credibility are compromised. This is what troubles most journalists. What good is the institution if the public it serves does not trust it?

“It is very personal to me. It is a threat to press freedom because you demonize the whole institution. By destroying its reputation, you deprive the public of a legitimate source of information,” Jeco Placio, a program manager for a newscast, says.

In any war, they say the first casualty is the truth. As threats against journalists continue to flood, some journalists admit the subtle and explicit effects of such accusations both on personal and professional levels. The effects start to show even in pre-production or brainstorming stage of story generation.

“There is definitely a chilling effect and self-censorship. I have become more conscious about the negative reactions of the public, how the mob will react, or if they will go after me with a pitchfork,” Kristine Sabillo, a broadcast journalist, says.

Some journalists also express doubt in their editorial judgment and consider the sentiment of Duterte supporters before publishing a story. “After receiving a death threat, we had to lie low for a while and avoided pursuing political stories,” Carlos* says.

Others report about having experienced subtle warnings from the management to soften the tone of language and even water down a controversial issue just so to avoid possible backlash from the public, particularly from the “DDS,” a group which calls themselves “Diehard Duterte Supporters.”

While journalists try to be critical in their reporting, it is difficult to overlook such imminent threats. “We are in a state of shock. We don’t know how to respond with what the current climate demands. It’s like skating on thin ice—those who are critical are being targeted,” senior journalist and media professor Alwyn Alburo says.

Antagonizing the public will do no good for the media especially since most media outlets rely on ratings for advertisements and income generation. Tagging certain news outlets of reporting “fake news” or misinformation is a positive deterrent to free and critical reporting.

However, media owners are careful not to brand such attacks as an outright threat to press freedom because of the possible effect on the company’s corporate interests. “Media owners do not care enough or are too scared to counter these attacks,” news editor and director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Nonoy Espina says.

Media as Truth Crusaders and Fact-checkers

Media criticisms accusing journalists as peddlers of misinformation come cheap. The real challenge for any journalist is to carry on and fulfill the job despite all these threats.

However, that can prove to be difficult with an active online population that can potentially be weaponized to promote a certain cause or propaganda. With the virality, shareability, and wide reach of misinformation, one can easily bury the truth or alter perceived reality.

“Troll armies” and “keyboard warriors,” notorious for spreading false information, can ultimately influence public discourse.

“It has become more difficult to verify now. You don’t know who to trust and if your sources are telling the truth,” journalist Tricia Zafra says.

Political trolling has created a niche market and has now become an industry in the Philippines. Manufacturing false information can be a lucrative business which can pay a troll up to 1,600 euros a month to create fake accounts and manufacture fake or automated response or comments, according to a report published by Rappler.

While misinformation is defined as plainly false information, it can also be used to further a political agenda. The use of false information to deliberately deceive the audience is a type of “fake news” called disinformation.

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With the current media environment, vigilance and verification are keys to producing an accurate and factual report. Fact-checking is an important tool of the trade in many newsrooms today and require extra attention from journalists. This is why independent fact-checkers and vetters work alongside writers and producers to verify the veracity of the information. Fact-checking is particularly crucial today as a single error can conveniently lead to “fake news” accusations.

However, not all newsrooms have the luxury of employing independent vetters. For many individual journalists, they need to carry out additional research and multiple layers of verification on their own. “It takes away the time that you should be using to pursue other important stories,” online reporter Jhoanna Ballaran says.

Amidst the growing scale of misinformation reaching the public, another prominent function of journalism today is the corrective function of the media. A journalist’s job is not only to make sure that the information he or she publishes is factual, he or she also needs to make sure to debunk falsehoods whenever possible.

The corrective function includes identifying lies and inconsistencies published by influential political blogs, other forms of media, and even from government authorities themselves. Correcting and challenging erroneous information from public officials is particularly important because of their stature in the society.

“When government officials are the source of wrong information, they can be taken as gospel truth and can lead to dangerous consequences,” television reporter Joyce Ilas explains.

If journalists are not able to correct a falsehood publicly on a media platform, the public may also mistake it as truth and therefore lead to legitimization of “fake news,” Buan adds.

Today, various Philippine media organizations have been conducting workshops and forums on how to spot “fake news” or misinformation. Educating the public about media literacy can be useful in making the audience understand the work of journalists.

Justin Joyas (also part of SubSelfie.com) works as a social media manager and journalist at a television station. “The network conducts talks in universities about ‘fake news.’ If a false information has become strongly viral, our team also releases a graphics debunking or correcting it to avoid further confusion from the public,” Joyas says.

Media’s Turning Point in History

The current media landscape in the Philippines calls for a much more active participation from the media. While most journalists fulfill the traditional roles of disseminating information and fact-checking, some journalists claim that the present environment demands for a journalist who is a vigilant watchdog, adversary, and mobilizer.

“Historically, Filipino journalists are fighters for freedom and reform. Journalism should comfort the afflicted. Journalism must be able to present the truth in the context that it exists,” opinion writer and blogger Tonyo Cruz says.

Misinformation presents a threat to democracy as it undermines a healthy and fair debate and discussion. But as in any situation where the media are challenged, there can also be opportunities to do better.

“Let’s start by asking who is behind this campaign for misinformation. Who is funding the trolls?” Cruz asks.

News outfits are also starting to gear towards investigative reporting and long-form in-depth journalism.

“Journalists are not just mere recorders of information. This is a wake-up call that we have to do more. We have the ability to process information, do some accounting, and hold people in power accountable for their actions,” Alburo says.

While journalists acknowledge that the media can never be truly objective and neutral because of the inherent biases of the profession, journalists can strive to be fair and accurate in its reporting.

“News should be truthful, not neutral. Journalists should be biased for the truth. There are stories that we, as journalists, should push forward, like stories about inequality or human rights violation,” news reporter Jervis Manahan says.

For many Filipino journalists, there is no other way to preserve journalism but to keep writing and reporting. After all, this is not the first time that journalism is tested as a profession.

With the fast pace of technology and digital media, the challenge of dealing with misinformation may only get more difficult in the future. The battle between truth and mistruths will continue. The role and relevance of journalists will be questioned. Whether journalists will step up to the challenge or create an opportunity out of this situation is completely in their hands.

Carlos reads another comment on their video documentary about the war on drugs. “The media are attention-seeking hypocrites,” it says. He says he has become used to reading foul comments now. “Journalism is a difficult career but it is our job to report the truth without reservations.” He pauses. “History will judge our work as journalists someday. Did I do something at such a critical point in our history? Did I do enough?”

*The name of the source has been withheld because of recurring death threats.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is by the Hewlett Foundation.

[Entry 260, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Subselfie - Sophia

Hon Sophia Balod is a storyteller. She is studying Media and Politics in Aarhus University, Denmark under the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship Program. She was previously a News Producer of special reports and features for GMA Network and Reuters.

She is a media fellow of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and recipient of 2016 Gawad Agong and Sarihay Media Awards for Excellence in News Reporting  on  the plight of indigenous people and environmental issues.  Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.

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