After the Fact: Context is All

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 15-05-2017

By Luis V. Teodoro


LYING ABOUT issues and events of public concern has been going on for far longer than most people think. In a world  of untruth the news media have two major responsibilities:  that they don’t spread lies, and that, armed with the skepticism the power of the media to do harm demands of them, they test the truth of the statements and claims of anyone who has something to say about anything of relevance to people’s lives.

They haven’t always been successful in either. Whether intentionally or not, the media have either spread outright lies, or failed to check fraudulent claims by such truth-challenged groups as governments and the politicians that run them.

Some Philippine media organizations have put in place or enhanced their fact-checking capabilities to shield themselves from accusations that they disseminate “fake news” due to their biases,  in behalf of a political or other agenda, or through plain incompetence. Fact-checking  reports and articles is standard practice among Western publications, some of which employ entire staffs  for that purpose. But fact-checking also includes subjecting to scrutiny the claims of news sources and public figures who demand  public attention in furtherance of certain aims. Desk people and sub-editors in media newsrooms are also expected to see to it that what is being reported by their staff is factual.

Fact-checking the utterances and claims of public personalities became an even more pronounced necessity in the liberal United States media during the 2016 campaign for the US presidency because of the statements of then candidate Donald Trump, who variously claimed that he had “tremendous support” among women; that the media “never show crowds;” that 14 percent of non-US citizens are registered to vote; that he did not mock a disabled reporter; that Hillary Clinton “laughed at a girl” who had been raped, etc.

Although fact checkers in the liberal Western press go through the details of reports, analyses and other journalistic pieces, on a daily basis journalists anywhere are themselves expected and presumed to be checking the truthfulness  of their work,  the primary professional and ethical  responsibility of journalism being truth-telling and accuracy.

It starts with getting the facts right — the who, what, where, when and how of an event or current issue. But it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Getting the facts may depend on the availability and integrity of one’s sources because the reporter may not be able to get, say, crime statistics himself, and has to depend on the police, which in the Philippines have a putrid record of truth-telling. Of course reporters can try to keep a record of, say, the daily toll in lives of the anti-illegal drug campaign, but they can’t be everywhere every time.

And yet there’s a bias for official sources not only in the Philippine press but in other countries as well. When journalists say they’ve fact-checked the numbers, the question that can arise is from where, meaning from what sources? The Philippine National Police, for example, has at least two sets of statistics on the number of people killed from July 2016 to January 2017 during anti-drug operations–it released a  larger number (2,555)  last January 31, and, less than a month later, a smaller one (1,398), which against all reason would suggest that the number of such deaths actually shrunk.

The reporter can’t just cite one figure over the other, but has to note in his report the above disparity, among other imperatives. Even then, getting the facts right is not enough. What he has to provide most of all is context, which includes recalling the police track record; the conflict of interest between an institution accused of extrajudicial killings’ providing the statistics on the killings; the reporter’s  own experience, if any, with the way the anti-drug campaign is being waged, etc.

The absence of context is a common  weakness in Philippine reporting on such issues as war and peace, mining and environmental protection, foreign relations and the drug problem, among others.  A report without context on an event or on developments in a complex issue would be fake news if it doesn’t provide the reader sufficient understanding of what he’s being told has happened or is happening.  It would lead the reader to make wrong conclusions and to form uninformed opinions on matters that have a bearing on his own life and the lives of others. Public discourse is debased, and in some instances, the press, when reporting on social issues and conflict, exacerbates existing divisions, biases and stereotypes.

Getting the facts right is necessary in any report. But to avoid spreading fake news context is equally important. In some instances context or its absence, despite factual accuracy, is all that can make the difference between  a news report that misinforms or confuses the media public and a truly informative one.