We need media that take the side of the people

Apr. 21, 2021

When I asked the student participants of a journalism lecture a couple of weeks back to say what they think the media should do more, two of them mentioned the words “bias” and “neutral.” True to the popular sentiment, they think the media should exercise more neutrality and let go of bias.

Spending a good amount of time each day listening to news broadcasts can develop one a sharp ear for the reporters’ voices, their signature enunciation, how they sign off catchy for recall. Eventually, you’ll start recognizing story patterns, airtime and even angles through which they frame the stories.

In the middle of this pandemic, I get drawn closer to the question of how we are receiving and processing information and how it affects our perception of everyday life. Since the past year, we have spent most of our time at home, which means we have also relied heavily on different forms of media to stay tethered to the world. But to what extent are we connected to—or disconnected from—it?

Our experience of information can be polarizing because it is both tragic and comic—a funny innocent meme one second, a case of extra-judicial killing the next, literally. We hear stories of heroism and those of betrayal. We alternately bounce between these two, linger in whichever we resonate with at the moment. To keep sane, some of us prefer the ones that feel comforting, even if it’s not necessarily the truth.

I began the journalism lecture with a quote from Thoreau which was also the philosophy of the film, “Into the Wild”: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Sadly, truth is not a matter of preference nor is it served on a platter. And if we would like to know how much truth we are getting from media giants today, we will have to confront the question of neutrality—the naiveté (or denial) of the fact that a default function in our information systems exists in the first place.

Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky contributes to dismantling the myth of media neutrality in A Propaganda Model. In this essay, he identified how media giants work and become instruments of maintaining exploitative systems. Three out six indicators include: [the media giants] being owned by elite businessmen, primarily run by advertising and how they [got used to] treat governments as reliable sources of information.

Credibility is automatically compromised once information dissemination gets treated as business. Only information that translates to profit or that conditions people to consume becomes published or aired. This is why we no longer mind if ads eat up most of the space in online articles. Even online broadcast episodes are interrupted by ads every now and then. If we want information, we have to pay ads some attention.

In worse cases, news itself is treated as advertising. For instance, try counting how many times the host mentions San Miguel Corporation in this report. Notice how he sells not just the Skyway Stage 3 which is accessible only to private vehicles, but also the forthcoming Bulacan airport which continues to displace hundreds of fisherfolk communities.

News about the violent dispersal of NutriAsia workers in Bulacan in 2018 is perhaps one of the most accurate examples that demonstrates how advertising holds media giants by the neck. Initial reports refusing to identify NutriAsia as the culprit of the violent dispersal was pointed to the corporation’s commercials that help keep media giants operational.

In November 2020, a journalist was called out on social media for seemingly just echoing President Duterte’s press releases. While it is a part of his job as member of the Malacañang Press Corps, the complaint problematizes the exercise of fact-checking (or the lack thereof) when information comes from governments. This kind of practice shows how media giants become mere pipes between seats of power and the common people, thus how they also become unknowing agents of government propaganda. Notice how they adopted the word, “Pasaway” (Stubborn), the Duterte government’s term to refer to people who allegedly violate quarantine protocols, in their reports.

On top of these are our daily doses of stories that replicate social media virality, fetishize violence, romanticize what should already be normal.

NutriAsia wouldn’t have been exposed if not for the documentation of the workers and their supporters who were there. All over the country, especially in the countryside, violence like and much more than this happens—farmers, unionists, human rights defenders are being killed—but they are too unprofitable, too uncomfortable to be covered by media giants. These stories are lucky to be given a 20-second airtime, luckier if the slain are not baselessly framed as armed rebels.

As of writing, Ann Patricia Non, the first to set up a community pantry which continues to be replicated in cities and provinces across the country, is holding a press conference. Her community pantry in Maginhawa had to postpone operations due to red-tagging and this one media crew’s question is almost doing the same: https://www.facebook.com/nowyouknowph/videos/189147786369329/ (time stamp: 25:30).

Some of us might not have realized it yet but in a way, our access to gadgets and social media has arguably shifted our information systems. We’re documenting significant events, publishing our views. We’re becoming journalists of our own communities, practitioners of alternative media. Conversations on how to sustain, strengthen and advocate them have to keep up.

It has been a year since the franchise nonrenewal of the Philippines’ largest broadcast network. Recently, one of its crews was chased by Chinese ships for covering the gradual territorial takeover of the West Philippine Sea while all the government could do was spew empty threats. It is for the likes of her, especially the almost-nameless community journalists and alternative media practitioners that we uphold the call to #DefendPressFreedom.

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