The View From Taft
By Dr. Benito L. Teehankee
ABS-CBN’s franchise says that it should “provide at all times sound and balanced programming; …assist in the functions of public information and education; [and] conform to the ethics of honest enterprise…” In line with this, I believe the network needs to provide more balanced and independent reporting and analysis of important social issues to help Filipinos become critically engaged citizens.
Informing and educating the citizens of a republican democracy is a sacred function of media. Democracy can work for the common good of citizens only when the latter understand how their society works and their role in it. Moreover, because the Constitution states that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them,” media must help in making the powerful accountable to the public.
Because of its influential and independent role in society, media is often referred to as The Fourth Estate, or even the fourth branch of government.
Filipinos who want to be critically engaged need good news information and analysis. This is where sound media institutions and a broadcast network like ABS-CBN become vital. Citizens should not merely criticize problematic social structures and people in power for its own sake; they must know and deeply understand the truth behind important social issues.
Issues that need more critical reporting and analysis from ABS-CBN include corruption, child pornography, human trafficking, poor utility services, the plight of workers in the cities and countryside and, of course, the mother of all issues, which is inequality and poverty. In reporting on such issues, the network must help people know what is happening and why this is happening. Importantly, citizens need help in understanding who are responsible for addressing these issues and whether they’re doing their jobs.
The network’s reporting and analysis on these issues have been disappointing. On the Metro Manila water supply issue, for example, reportage has focused on the opposing views of the government and the water companies on the terms of the concessions. However, the causes of the water shortage and how they can be addressed have hardly been explained. Fights between the government and the concessionaires make for colorful news, but is this more important than water supply itself?
I am most disappointed in the reportage on inequality and poverty in our country. International organizations have long pointed out that we have one of the slowest rates of poverty reduction in the region despite our strong economic growth. Yet, the network accepts the government’s official stance that poverty has gone down, based on the P10,727 monthly poverty line for a family of five, without any critical comment. This is a superficial approach to this devilish problem. Tough questions need to be asked: Where has the growth been going, and why isn’t it being shared more?
To answer such questions, the network needs news and current affairs professionals whose highest goals are to report the truth and to help the public in understanding these truths. Competent broadcast journalists, such as the late American broadcaster Edward Murrow, can separate facts from hearsay or opinion. They can reveal and analyze the cause-effect relationships among actors, structures, resources, rules, culture, and beliefs that are behind complex social problems. I often think that the network’s news anchors weigh in with more opinion than analysis and don’t do a good job of getting all sides. Given their influence on the public mind, this is not responsible journalism.
Beyond competence, the network needs to work on its news ethics, especially its independence. The commercialization of news has naturally led to conflicts of interest. This all started when news programs changed their formats to go after ratings. The action-oriented and bombastic style of news delivery has replaced the more rational and analytic styles of decades past. News anchors have become popular not because of the quality of their reportage but because of their image and style of reporting: a triumph of form over substance. The worst part is that some of these anchors leveraged on the popularity they gained from delivering popular news programs to win public office! How can news anchors be credible independent critics of government when they can choose to become public servants and then return to newscasting?
News commercialization also takes other annoying forms. For example, the network promotes its shows and talents under the guise of impartial “news” and juicy tidbits about its talents in revealing swimwear.
I am still kapamilya and want the network’s franchise to be renewed. But I hope that ABS-CBN will take its duties under the law more seriously by helping restore our socio-cultural fabric and educating citizens to be informed and critically engaged.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is the Jose E. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University.