Sunday, August 14, 2005

Media's Fault?

Commentary : Media and elections

Violet B. Valdez
Inquirer News Service

(The following was adapted from a talk delivered at the International Conference on Politics in a Transition Period and the Role of the Media. The conference was held in Ulanbataar, Mongolia last month. The author is a faculty member of the Department of Communication of the Ateneo de Manila University.)

AT THE CENTER of the storm engulfing the administration of President Macapagal-Arroyo is the conduct of the national election which she officially won. Today, however, the integrity of that election is in question, and Ms Arroyo is accused of having acquired her seat through massive electoral fraud. The evidence is an audio tape which carries, allegedly, wiretapped telephone conversations between her and an election official. Among those discussed in the conversations was a plot to rig the elections. Neither the authenticity of the tape nor the voices in it have been officially established, but it continues to wreak havoc on an administration already beleaguered by mammoth problems.

Free and fair elections are key to a democracy. The ability of the citizenry to choose its government in an open, fair process is the hallmark of a democratic society. Thus, democratic societies enshrine institutions which protect and foster the integrity of elections, among them, the press.

The media play a crucial role in elections by being themselves: observers and recorders of events and issues, thus bringing public events into the public sphere—that abstract space in which citizens discuss and debate public issues. This information and opinion-formation role of the media implies the notion of the press as a watchdog, a role that underlies the ideology of popular and representative government because "it springs from the idea of the populace as sovereign entering into a social contract with a governing establishment that will serve popular interests."

The present controversy provides an opportunity to re-examine the conduct of the 2004 elections and the role of the media. Also, it draws attention to a compelling need to scrutinize the ways in which the press deals with elections. How did the media cover the elections? Did the journalists conduct themselves in keeping with professional standards?

Uncovering media coverage

A number of studies provide clues to the quality of the media coverage of the 2004 elections. A content analysis done by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) showed serious failings, gaps and flops in the election's coverage by major newspapers and TV newscasts. The CMFR found that the coverage tended toward the trivial and sensational and lacked in thoroughness and balance; it was also dubious. Celebrities, surveys and mudslinging dominated the news to the exclusion of reports on platforms, policy issues, development issues and elections at the local and Senate levels. News reports were often inaccurate, if not fabricated, and made frequent use of anonymous sources.

The skewed coverage and the trivialization of the elections did not escape voters, according to a study done by the Ateneo Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC). From data obtained from voters belonging to the poor segment of the population, the IPC found that the participants in the study thought they had inadequate information particularly about candidates running for national positions. One participant said that news revealed only "what the candidates did on a particular day of the campaign and not what they (wanted) to do, what they have already done, what they have accomplished or (wanted) to accomplish."

Bribes shape news

Professional conduct was far from exemplary, as can be gleaned from a report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). Obtaining data from a sample of print and broadcast reporters and editors who covered the elections, the PCIJ's findings revealed that there were journalists who took bribes, that the acceptance of bribes had shaped election news, and that the concern for ratings or circulation was paramount when editors judged the newsworthiness of an election story or issue.

The report of a non-government observer of the elections, the National Democracy Institute, reflected the findings of the three studies. It observed various forms of anomalous conduct, including that of journalists or media outlets taking money in exchange for either positive or negative coverage of opponents—depending on the donor's interests, or news organizations' soliciting advertising from candidates and parties, or the partisan affiliation of many media outlets and executives, and "blurred (the) lines between objective journalism and press agentry, as those providing the commentary are usually representing those being covered."

Watchdog media, credible elections

The lack of integrity of the media coverage implicated the integrity of the elections because the media were an important source of information and source of influence in the choice of candidates. By a good margin, the news media, according to the IPC study, was the most important source of influence of low-income voters during the elections, followed by family, church and political party, in that order.

These reports reinforce the impression that some sectors of the Philippine press were complicit in the anomalies observed during the 2004 elections, that they failed to perform the fourth estate's role as a watchdog that monitors activities of public interest and fearlessly exposes abuses of power and authority. For as long as the Philippine press is unable to perform these roles, the country will suffer elections whose results neither echo the people's voice nor count the people's vote.