Journalism and activism then and now

A journalist should be fair but he or she cannot be neutral. In the context of its role as the Fourth Estate, journalism is inherently critical and adversarial. A neutral observer cannot ask critical or hard questions, so in a sense the framing becomes “soft” if a journalist believes in neutrality.

By DANILO ARAÑA ARAO
Bulatlat.com

Two campus journalists asked questions about basic concepts of journalism and the role of campus journalists during the time of Martial Law and beyond. These are my answers.

It is generally accepted, even in journalism, that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. So how objective exactly is a journalist expected to be?

Objectivity is measured by adherence not just to the codes of ethics but also to the principles of journalism. The Filipino Journalist’s Code of Ethics has 11 provisions while Lambeth enumerates five principles (truth-telling, justice, humaneness, stewardship and freedom). What these normative standards have in common is that journalists are obligated to be fair by getting all possible sides of the story. For example, they interview sources of information not based on personal preference but based on the sources’ professional expertise. In other words, a journalist should be objective to the point that he or she is not anymore subjective in their work.

In light of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, American journalist Wesley Lowery said that the “view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment” and that some stories should not be approached from a neutral perspective. Do you agree with his statement? If so, what kind of stories should not be approached neutrally?

Neutrality is a myth. Stories cannot be approached neutrally as doing so reduces a journalist to a mere fence-sitter. There is no such thing as neutral observation as it results in a false sense of balance and pluralism. Journalism by its very nature takes a stand against any wrongdoing. Human rights reporting is done for the simple reason that human rights violations should be denounced. Investigative reporting is conducted because certain anomalies need to be exposed. A human rights reporter or investigative reporter is expected to get all sides to ferret out the truth. He or she cannot claim to be neutral about the issue. The choice of topic, after all, already reflects the journalists’ resolve to expose what must be opposed.

Lowery also said that there should instead be a new approach in journalism—one which he called “moral clarity.” His position is that there are “objective facts” such as that certain ideologies are harmful or that some minorities are oppressed. But strictly speaking, these entail making a value claim. Are journalists ever in the right position to do that when they are developing or writing articles or reports?

Clarity is achieved by observing the highest professional and ethical standards of journalism. While morality is also a good measure, it may be prone to subjective interpretation. Journalism standards of accuracy are relatively precise in the sense that a journalist strives for both factual and contextual accuracy. Indeed, certain ideologies are harmful to making sense of the reality. It is unthinkable for a journalist, for example, to be supportive of human rights violations and repression of basic freedoms (e.g., press freedom). Hate speech also has no place in journalism in the sense that it fails to elevate the level of discourse and ends up tolerating injustice.

Lowery also thinks that trying to be neutral when questioning people in power makes the framing of a story “soft.” Do you think that, because of this, there is due cause to take a side that is inherently critical—and not neutral—when questioning authority figures?

A journalist should be fair but he or she cannot be neutral. In the context of its role as the Fourth Estate, journalism is inherently critical and adversarial. A neutral observer cannot ask critical or hard questions, so in a sense the framing becomes “soft” if a journalist believes in neutrality.

If there is cause to not be neutral at times, must this be a general practice, or should it only be applied on a case-to-case basis?

Fairness should be observed at all times, in the same way that a journalist cannot afford to be neutral. Perhaps the only acceptable form of “neutrality” is the use of gender-neutral words (e.g., “police officer” instead of “policeman”) or value-free words (e.g., “said” instead of “claimed”).

Suppose there is justification for a journalist to not be neutral when approaching an issue. What does this mean for one’s journalistic integrity? Can an unneutral journalist remain credible if they are expected to be impartial and unbiased?

Neutrality and impartiality may appear to be anonymous but they are two different concepts. The former is a myth while the latter requires fairness and balance. A journalist gains credibility by doing the latter.

Opponents of Mr. Lowery’s “moral clarity” position say that it risks making journalism subjective. Is there a way to follow this “moral clarity” view without sliding into subjectivity?

Morality has a tendency to be subjective as moral values tend to change over time. Journalism standards stand the test of time, and the marked difference is the strengthening and reaffirmation of professional and ethical norms.

Much of the issue on objectivity and “moral clarity” also revolves around the publication of opinion pieces. Do you think that a paper should be careful about what columns or op-eds they publish or should it allow, as others say, the free exchange of ideas left to the public to make their own conclusions?

Selection of columnists should be based on authority, track record and ability to communicate important topics to a broader audience. It is possible for the pool of columnists to have varying political beliefs and the readers could benefit from such differences.

Are there any challenges that the Duterte administration and the rise of his vocal supporters have posed to the way Philippine media cover social and political issues?

The prevalence of “fake news” may be rooted in the sheer number of troll armies polluting the Internet, particularly social media platforms like Facebook. Sometimes the public is misled into believing the “fake news” items to be the truth so media literacy should be a continuing project of both the academe and the media. There are times when the critical media are projected in a negative light as they are dismissed as “fake news” peddlers by the President himself. There is a need to constantly expose such unacceptable practice from the powers-that-be.

The human rights abuses committed during Martial Law were also closely tied to the stifling of press freedom; Liliosa Hilao, the first female activist who was killed, was also a campus journalist. With that said, what did campus journalism come to symbolize during that period?

During the time of Martial Law, campus journalism helped keep the torch of press freedom burning. It was part of the so-called mosquito press that provided critical reportage of authoritarian rule. In terms of symbolism, history shows that campus journalism played a pivotal role in the resistance to the dictatorship. In terms of stewardship (an important principle of journalism), it showed the importance of being critical and adversarial in a repressive regime.

A lot of campus publications like Ateneo’s The GUIDON were closed down and eventually went underground as “mosquito press.” How invaluable were these underground publications to the movement against Marcos?

Martial Law was a defining moment to professional and campus journalists. Those who decided to toe the government line ended up working for the crony press (even if there were also people who wrote for the crony press and tried to use whatever limited space they have to provide some critical reportage). Underground publications provided a venue for an information-hungry public during Martial Law. Even if their existence was hush-hush, people sensed that there was something wrong with the Marcos regime’s propaganda of a new society under Martial Law.

Can you tell us more about the underground press during this time?

The underground press housed the best and the brightest journalists during Martial Law. At that time, they knew that part of their ethical obligation was to expose the dictator who happened to be the enemy of press freedom. Despite its limited budget and resources, the alternative press managed to influence public opinion and it culminated in the 1986 people’s uprising.

CEGP was also shut down during this time. Can you tell us more about the organization’s operations during this period?

The CEGP was the oldest organization of student publications in Asia. It was one of the many organizations that helped expose the dictatorship, even if doing so led to the various forms of human rights violations against its officers and members.

Attacks against press freedom and journalists aren’t confined to the Marcos era; journalists were also killed during the Arroyo and Noynoy Aquino administrations. Notably, the people implicated in the Maguindanao massacre have still not served time. What does this say about journalism throughout Philippine history?

This only validates the prevailing culture of impunity in the country. Despite the so-called restoration of democratic institutions in 1986, journalists are still at the receiving end of state repression. This is the reason why the fight for press freedom has never ended with the ouster of Marcos.

The Campus Journalism Act of 1991 was signed in order to protect press freedom; but it has its flaws. Recently, CEGP called the law “29 years of toothlessness.” What can you say about this? How can we better protect campus journalists and media practitioners?

The CJA of 1991 has been weaponized by the powers-that-be to repress campus press freedom. This explains why we should call for its repeal. I understand that there is a pending Campus Press Freedom Act in Congress that has been largely ignored. I read the past versions of the bill and it is worth supporting because it seeks to correct the inherent flaws of the CJA.

As the Anti-Terrorism Act has been signed by President Duterte, what are some tips or advice you could give to campus journalists based on your previous experiences in overcoming a similar obstacle during Martial Law?

There is a need for all journalists to unite against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. They should strengthen their physical and digital security. They should also bring to the attention of their organization any untoward incident so that they would not be left alone in case something happens to them.

In your opinion, what should campus journalism stand for, especially during these times?

They should defend not just press freedom but also the people’s basic freedoms. This is the point in the country’s history where journalism and activism do not simply intersect as they should now have the same mission and meaning. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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