POSTSCRIPT / August 17, 2017 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Media’s gaffes, accountability

THE RECENT editorial lapses of the state-run Philippine News Agency can be traced largely to a blurred corporate vision and ill-defined accountability.

After committing two embarrassing blunders within one week, it is time PNA personnel from top to bottom took an honest stock of themselves and clarified accountability – which is the obligation and willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions.

First it has to be admitted that the agency’s publication of wrong information is as much a result of management shortcomings as it is a failure of personnel down the line.

We doubt if publicly scolding them and threatening legal action against errant staffers will solve the problems. Nor will installing another heavy bureaucratic block atop the rank and file as the supreme layer of redundant gatekeepers.

Drawing from our stint in public information, we think that some PNA staffers may be suffering from lack of clear direction. Writers in the government, many of whom dream of someday migrating to the private sector, often find their roles confusing.

Expecting PNA writers to stick to journalism as taught to them in school – and committing fewer mistakes — is made more difficult by unresolved questions of for whom, for what and why are they engaged in government information work aside from earning a living.

The two lapses referred to here are PNA’s use of the Dole Philippines logo for the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and its carrying a Xinhua commentary describing as “ill-founded” the UNCLOS arbitral award to the Philippines on South China Sea issues.

The gaffes were so glaring that not a few readers wondered why they happened at all. They could have been avoided had the staff been reading enough of current Philippine-China issues, the food processing business, and the labor situation.

There was obvious incompetence and carelessness in the news handling. But the mistakes could have been caught in time if a validation system had been in place and the supervisors wide awake.

• Andanar installs super editorial body

TO PREVENT similar mistakes, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar has placed an Editorial Board on top of PNA. He said: “The board will act as the last gatekeeper. All stories must pass under its scrutiny.”

The term “gatekeeper” has fascinated onlookers who may have no working idea of how a communication group works. Some probably think in terms of mechanical valves that turn on or off the flow of information per schedule.

The gatekeeping, at various levels, must be in the context always of accountability. This sense of responsibility is imbibed by a journalist as he climbs the editorial rungs from beat reporting. Aside from being an extended classroom, the beat is the battlefield where most veterans earn their spurs – and learn from hard knocks, including libel suits, what accountability is.

(This might explain why many newsmen relate more easily to beat reporters who made it to an editorship by sheer merit. They tend to dismiss those who have become editors because of their connection to the owners or their cronies, or had a fancy diploma from abroad.)

Accountability is often mentioned by mainstream media when asked how they differ from so-called social media. In systematically organized media, bound by ethical codes, practice and tradition, a practitioner cannot run away from responsibility.

This is one aspect of mainstream media that shines through the fog of disinformation, fake news, and vicious language. Everybody makes mistakes at times, but the erring journalist or the system itself will make a prompt and proper correction.

The purveyor of libel in mainstream media is identifiable and the victim can go after him. Not so easily in other media where writers or bloggers or whatever they call themselves hide behind cryptic aliases and use photos of something or someone else.

In traditional media, nobody’s copy is sacred. The writer’s facts are checked and double checked by editors who never cease to amaze younger staffers with their seeming to know everything and their ability to dig out facts through connections cultivated over the years.

This cross-checking and challenging of facts before publication is a valuable safeguard not enjoyed by most bloggers who, as soon as they witness an event or think of something, post an instant item in the Internet without verification.

• Marcos gatekeeping didn’t work

THE SAME use of a final gatekeeper was resorted to by then President Ferdinand Marcos after he declared martial rule in September 1972, then closed all media and reopened some favored ones that he placed under the control of trusted publishers and editors.

His gatekeepers labored and brought forth a mountain of stories growing stale while awaiting publication. As news is perishable, the slow gatekeeping at the top proved counter-productive.

Placing a heavy block of super-gatekeepers will not save a news agency or a communications group if most of the layers below have not learned responsibility, if accountability has not been ingrained at all levels, and if working conditions have not improved.

The new PNA editorial board, with Andanar as head, consists of PCOO Usec Joel Egco, PCOO Asec Joseph Lawrence Garcia, News and Information Bureau Director Virginia Arcilla-Agtay, consultant Albert Gamboa, and PNA executive editor Louie Morente.

The board will function, he said, as the last-touch gatekeeper tasked with stamping every story its approval. This might drag down, as in the Marcos model, instead of improve efficiency and develop a sense of accountability.

That idea of Palace-chosen gatekeepers holding a life-and-death discretion over stories awaiting dissemination may not work well in an environment steeped in the concepts and practices of a libertarian press. We hope Andanar can make it work at the PNA.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 17, 2017)

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