On the Campaign Trail
ATTACHED TO, or embedded in a candidate’s political campaign, reporters are forced to follow a set schedule, a task that can be repetitive and sometimes useless in terms of helping the public evaluate the candidate’s worth.
Media organizations usually assign a reporter and a photographer, and for TV stations, a camera team to a candidate. It becomes their ‘beat’ for the season, during which they provide regular feeds from the campaign trail.
As the media keep tabs of the candidates’ sorties, these teams can become, willingly or unwittingly, accessories of the political machinery of the candidates, with one’s reports becoming part of the media handlers’ aims. The system also tends to encourage similar content which can read or sound like press releases.
Beat reporting, repetitive and similar topics
CMFR monitored the news reports from the three major Manila broadsheets the Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star from February 21 to March 5, 2016.
This setup tends to discourage enterprise reporting. Much of the coverage so far has not veered from the usual practice of reporting what the candidates, their spokespersons or their local supporters said to the media; who met up with the candidates; what entertainment was provided, if any, during the sorties; and what happened and where. These reports do record mishaps or any other event that departs from the routine, but are more often focused on the usual details about what was said, how it was received, the reactions of the voters, etc.
For example, the reports by the Bulletin, the Inquirer and the Star published on February 28 about the campaign sortie of the Grace Poe-Chiz Escudero tandem in Davao, which failed to push through allegedly due to the lack of permits, all had similar content.
All three broadsheets used Peter Laviña, presidential aspirant and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson, as their main source. Only the Inquirer and the Star tried to explain the side of the Poe-Escudero camp, but even its reports merely relied on what senatorial candidate Lorna Kapunan said about the incident.
The reports also pit candidates against each other by reporting their respective statements against their rivals, such as a Bulletin report on February 25, in which Roxas questioned Duterte’s crime busting claims by citing the assessment of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) that 72 out of 180 barangays in Davao had problems with illegal drugs.
In the Star, Duterte criticized the Aquino administration’s “daang matuwid” which Mar Roxas intends to continue, calling it a “fantasy.” In an Inquirer report, meanwhile, Roxas questioned Binay’s trustworthiness, because of the corruption allegations against the vice president.
Besides the usual tirades from the candidates, the media also reported their promises by quoting them or their spokespersons. These promises were reported without any mention of the strategies needed for achieving them, and without noting the difficulties that could prevent their realization.
News or press releases?
CMFR also observed that the reports often depend on the candidates’ spokespersons as primary sources, with these spokespersons being quoted alongside the candidates, and merely supplementing what the latter had already been quoted as saying.
For instance, a Bulletin article said presidential candidate and incumbent Vice President Jejomar Binay is the only one with a track record in poverty reduction, which only repeated a claim by Binay’s spokesperson Joey Salgado. The article lead— “Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, presidential candidate of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), is the only candidate with a track record of reducing poverty”—read like a press release.
Salgado did mention data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) to back his claims but the report itself did not cite additional research to either verify or disprove the information provided. (“UNA boasts of Binay’s track record in poverty alleviation,” Bulletin, February 23, 2016)
Duterte spokesperson Peter Laviña was also the only source quoted in an Inquirer report on Duterte’s response to rival Mar Roxas’ swipe at the tough-talking Davao mayor’s crime busting record in his hometown. (“Duterte camp hits Roxas on drugs in Davao,” Inquirer, February 24, 2016)
The system—which demands reporting the who, what, where, when, why and how—does limit the reporter’s options, in addition to its helping candidates keep afloat in the sea of election-related reports, which is an advantage for candidates since this kind of reporting provides them free publicity and keeps the candidates’ names on ‘top of the mind’ of voters.
But to help voters make informed decisions come election day—as well as to provide variety in the coverage—media teams could better prepare for it by drafting questions on the issues raised during the candidates’ sorties, and demand face-time with the candidates that are more than just ‘feel-good’ encounters.
The media should also note whether a campaign is well-organized or not, who the candidate is trying to reach, and what is the central message.
The reports could also look into the cost of the campaign and the resources the candidates use. Are the costs of vehicles, such as helicopters, paid for out of public, party or personal funds? Is a candidate working with a huge campaign war chest? Who are the campaign’s big donors? These are legitimate questions that interest voters and deserve to be answered. The team on the road can transmit its questions to researchers in the home office. Fact checking would prove or disprove the claims that candidates make, and false claims should be duly pointed out.
The media represent the voters’ interests rather than those of the candidate. Journalists need to inform the voters who the key people in the candidate’s campaign are, and who has the candidate’s ear. The public needs know who they are, their backgrounds, their records and the interests they represent, because they’re likely to be named to key positions in government once the candidate wins.