Out of Context
One of the long-established principles of journalism is that of providing context. It’s a companion principle of accuracy, which in addition to requiring that journalists get the names, dates and places right in news reporting, demands that they also tell their audience—whether readers, viewers, or listeners— the larger story of which what’s being reported is a part.
It’s more commonly known as backgrounding, or that practice of reminding the media audience of what had gone before. It’s easily done either through a few sentences following the lead, or through a separate article, or a sidebar as it’s known in print, that can consist of a few paragraphs or several dozen.
A hold-up in a slum community, for example, is better understood if the public is reminded that it’s the third in the same vicinity in the last four months. Without context, a report on an encounter between guerillas and government troops in which there were huge casualties on both sides would be no more than just another violent incident, whereas it can be better appreciated if a brief history of rebellions and their root causes were provided.
Backgrounding or contextualization has not been among the strong suits of the Philippine press, whether in print or broadcasting. This is specially true when it comes to those complex stories of public interest the citizenry needs to understand so it can arrive at the informed opinion needed for decision- making. Providing context is a professional obligation of journalists in a democracy, in which making decisions on issues of governance and policy is the sovereign prerogative of free men and women.
In April and May this year, three issues of compelling public interest were duly reported by the Philippine press. The so-called rice crisis, the debate over the Philippine baselines bills, and the battle for control of the Manila Electric Company vied with each other for prominence on the front pages of the newspapers and in the early evening television news.
As the PJR Reports monitors on the coverage of these three matters of public concern (“The Price of Rice and the Rise of Prices,” pp.14-17; “The Meralco Controversy: More Heat than Light,” pp. 18-19; “Reporting UNCLOS: Foundering in the Shallows,”pp.20-21) revealed, however, while the print and broadcast media dutifully reported the debate over these issues, there was little they provided by way of either a history or an explanation of the complexities that the public needed to understand so it could arrive at intelligent conclusions on, for example, whether a shift from the policy of importing rice to a policy of self-sufficiency was needed, what’s driving the high cost of electricity and whether government control of Meralco would lead to lower costs, or whether the bills that have been introduced in Congress to define the baselines of Philippine territory would undermine the country’s claim to the Spratlys.
The reportage on these three issues in fact underlines the need for the media to reexamine the practice of reporting only what those speaking in behalf of each side in a major public issue said, towards a proactive effort to enhance public understanding of the issues that confront this country and its people through the contextualization that in the first place has always been a press responsibility.
Luis V. Teodoro