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Questionable Questions for the Press | CMFR

Questionable Questions for the Press

How questions from TV journos sparked a fiery online debate, and an ethical reckoning

Written by Bim Santos

THE PAST few weeks have been an interesting, if humbling, experience for journalists in social media. Three reporters from the three major networks became the subject of highly spirited discussion on Twitter over a question that each asked of their interviewees. 

A number of practitioners have brushed aside the issues as non-issues. Admittedly, I too had this knee-jerk sentiment at the start, being used to these types of questions during press conferences and field interviews, both events usually being occasions where one could hear the whole gamut of questions, from the enlightening to the stupefying to the head-scratching, fielded from a range of practitioners coming from different platforms with varying needs and quirks. Kaniya-kaniyang topak, in short. But just par for the course. All in a day’s work.

But the online debates, though overwhelming at times, was also eye-opening. I thought myself presumptuous to just brush all these aside thinking I knew better. I could almost hear Shuri telling off her older brother, The Black Panther, the more seasoned warrior in field warfare, “How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.”

To bury one’s head in the sand in the middle of the vigorous, if at times venomous, discussion wouldn’t do anyone any good, especially for us in the media as public trust;  for our profession has shriveled further and further under the glare of “fake news,” “biased news,” and other catch phrases bandied about by populist politicians. 

These were teachable moments, not just for greenhorn journalists and dyed-in-the-wool field media veterans, but also for the growing numbers of the public in ever expanding space of social media.

Dirty question

The first incident happened on April 20 during the online press conference of Ana Patricia Non, who started the seminal Maginhawa Community Pantry which has now catalyzed a national movement. Non called for the press conference after announcing that she had to stop the operations of the pantry after the police alleged her supposed links to the Communisty Party of the Philippines. This red tagging eventually made her fearful for her safety and for those helping her out in the effort. 

The question came from GMA-7’s Tina Panganiban-Perez. The whole exchange, which has gone viral in Twitter, was as follows:

Tina Panganiban-Perez: Just to set the record straight, para rin wala na masyadong tanung-tanong or duda sayo, mayron ka nga bang links to Communist groups until now or nagkaroon or ano ba itong basis ng red-tagging sa iyo 

Ana Patricia-Non: Ok po. Sa totoo lang po, wala po akong links sa Communist party and napaka… pasensiya na po pero ang dumi po ng question na yan, kasi po last thing na kailangan kong i-explain sa mga tao is kung ano ako, or sino ba ako.

As the Zoom press conference was being streamed live on social media, the blowback was instantaneous; especially after the host made a lengthy appeal following Perez’s question for the media to be more circumspect in their line of questioning regarding the issue of red-tagging.

Mahirap po itong mga ganitong klaseng tanong na may red-tagging na nagaganap or proven guilty unless sabihin mo na hindi ka ganiyan, so ang paalala ko lang po ulit, hinay-hinay lang po tayo,” said Dino Pineda, who was moderating the press conference.

Mag-ingat lang po sana tayo sa mga ganitong klaseng tanong na we put our subjects against the wall.”

As Pineda was speaking, the comments section was quickly lighting up with strings of angry comments, that then spilled over to Twitter right after the presscon ended.

Trolling 

The backlash was so swift against Perez that barely an hour has passed that Non posted a Facebook status pleading with people to stop “attacking” Perez.

Ganyan lang po ang nature ng work nya, kailangan nya lang po tanungin at nagkataon lang po na kailangan ko din sagutin,” said Non.

(In a subsequent interview with journalist Barnaby Lo, Non also said she understood why Perez had to ask the question, while qualifying that she also needed to state that it was still a “dirty” query).

Even then, a horde of indignant mob piled on Perez, many baying for her head. The venom and vitriol led her to eventually shut off comments on her Twitter posts. 

Journalist Inday Espina Varona spoke out against the “trolling” of Perez, saying that though the question could have been framed differently, it was not a cardinal sin and she did not hector Non.

“It did not deserve the insults nor imputations of loyalty to someone/something,” Varona tweeted.

For critics, the main bone of contention was that the question was “dirty,” unnecessary, uncalled for, even dangerous.

Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch and a former journalist said that in the context of activists being murdered, such a question is “not helping end the violence.”

Do no harm

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) also released a statement in the wake of the online controversy titled “Journalists should strive to do no harm.”

“The NUJP recognizes the right of media colleagues to ask the hard questions when covering sensitive issues such as red-tagging. However, we also urge them to do so with utmost sensitivity and respect to individuals, groups and initiatives that have been the subjects of such vilification campaign,” the statement read.

NUJP further said that the media should not lend credence to red-tagging campaigns, and that the burden of proof should always lie on the accuser.

“That said, we are closing ranks with all journalists and recognize that there will always be differences in opinion on how stories are covered and that how questions are couched in interviews is no license for online abuse,” the NUJP statement ended.

Other senior GMA-7 reporters also spoke on the issue on Twitter and defended their colleague.

Kara David said it was “a valid question.”  Sandra Aguinaldo said it was a “legitimate question.” Raffy Tima said it “was an ‘elephant in the room’ question, it had to be asked.” The most impassioned defense, perhaps, came from Chino Gaston.

“Journalists have different ways of extracting the most relevant and compelling answers from their subjects. The body of work should be proof of malice, not the way questions are posed. Those saying otherwise, fellow journalists included, should stand down or simply just shut up,” Gaston said.

Body of work

Gaston’s point that a reporter should be judged through his “body of work,” meaning the actual story or report, has been also brought up before when reporters live-tweet President Rodrigo Duterte. Some have argued that giving a platform to Duterte’s patent falsehoods and insults without context and an outright fact-check is poor journalism. But the question then arises: are tweets part of journalism? Are questions in a press conference journalism? Or is journalism the final output, meaning the story that was aired, the story that was printed? What is an actual oeuvre or a body of work of a journalist?

In this regard, Camille Diola, editor in chief of Philstar.com, tweeted that journalism “is less about the product and platform than it is about the method.” 

On air apology

The second incident concerned a question asked by ABS-CBN’s Alvin Elchico to an emotional Angel Locsin during a live segment of TV Patrol last April 23. Locsin was then in the news after a senior citizen who lined up at her community pantry passed out and died.

The exchange was as follows:

Elchico: Kahit may nangyaring ganito, mayroon ka pa bang susunod na i-o-organisang community pantry? O nadala ka na?

Locsin: Wala na po. Hindi na po.

A number of Twitter users scored Elchico, saying the question was insensitive. The day after, Elchico said sorry on his DZMM Teleradyo program.

“Angel, sorry ah pero ganun din talaga ako magsalita parang palasak na pabagsak eh. Sorry po, Angel kung nakikinig ka I didn’t mean to offend or hurt,” Elchico said.

Sa mga fans po, sorry po kung na-offend kayo, but it was never my intention na i-offend po siya. Sorry if you are offended sa mga fans po but it was never my intention na i-offend po siya. I just asked it because I think valid po yung tanong, kasi nga with what happened, uulitin pa ba niya. Yun lang po ang ibig kong sabihin,” added Elchico.

Elchico also posted a screenshot of a message from Locsin saying the actress was not offended by his question.

Doing better

The third incident related to a question from TV5’s JC Cosico to the daughter of Rolando Dela Cruz, the 67 year old who died while on queue at Locsin’s Pantry.

Here is the exchange between Cosico and Jennifer Fosano:

Fosano: Sana ‘di na lang siya pumila. Sana nag-babalot na lang siya, o kaya sa baba. Yun lang po

Cosico: Si Ms. Angel Locsin, wala ba siyang kasalanan dito? Anong mensahe niyo po sa kaniya?

Fosano: Hindi naman po niya kasalanan, yung mga tao yung walang kontrol sa ano eh, disiplina po eh

After his Twitter post was bashed as some said it was leading on the interviewee to pin blame on Locsin, Cosico posted an apology in the same Twitter thread.

“Hi, guys! I read your comments and after much thought, I sincerely apologize for having asked my question that way. I had no intention of blaming Ms. Angel Locsin and I understand that I could’ve phrased my question better. Trust that I will do better next time. Salamat po! Folded hands,” Cosico wrote.

Phrasing questions

Of the three questions, the one from Perez became the most controversial so much that it became the topic of at least three talks, one by the University of the Philippines Department of Journalism, another by the Philippine Press Institute, and one organized in the nascent Twitter Spaces by Inquirer columnist John Nery, among others.

It’s hard being hard on one’s self. But it’s harder to go hard on colleagues. There has always been the well-worn observation that journalism is an old boys club, that practitioners would tolerate one another’s infractions to maintain camaraderie.

As can be sensed from the statements of Perez’s colleagues in GMA-7, the whole issue was a non-issue from their vantage point as the question got the job done, it was a vital element in the story.

From practitioners, the general sense was that it was indeed a valid question in the sense that it addressed the issue at hand, but the thought was it could, or should, have been asked in another manner is where most of the objections lie.

The journalist as educator

“There is such a thing kasi as framing the question,” said Ariel Sebellino, executive director of the Philippine Press Institute who was also a community journalist before.

When I asked him how journalists should respond when they are at the crosshairs of online criticism, Sebellino said it is now also incumbent for the press to engage in some manner.

“As journalists, yung pagiging educator din natin bitbit din yan kasi we want our audience to also be educated about our profession,” Sebellino said.

“I think the lesson is to do an introspection kasi for the longest time, the work is just between the journalist and the editor, na pag nandiyan na yung storya, ok na. Pero ngayon mas marami na tayong iko-consider dahil sa social media,” said Sebellino.

“You can be open to criticism as long as it is given constructively. We are in a position where we can have a better engagement with the audience, and mas critical ang audience kasi they expect much from us,” Sebellino added.

Public trust 

Veteran journalist Manny Mogato, who is now editing for News5, said Perez’s question was “legitimate,” only that questions arose on how she framed it.

Mogato said he also understood why it’s sometimes better to steer clear of engaging with online critics.

“Wala ka ring panalo diyan sa online critics, masyado nang toxic ang environment eh,” said Mogato.

But though engagement may prove challenging, Mogato said it would also be in the best interests of media to try to reach out.

“Yung ganiyang incidents, nakakabawas yan sa credibility ng journalist, sa public trust. Gawin mo lang trabaho mo ng tama, kung nagkamali ka, apologize then correct mo, para lang maibalik yung tiwala ng tao,” Mogato said.

Humaneness

Walter Balane, a journalist from Bukidnon who also saw the online discussion about the issue, said that “reporters should be critical but not to the extent of being insensitive. There is the humaneness requirement.”

“I believe it is our duty to ask the hard questions but we are duty-bound to ask the questions keeping in mind both the public’s right to know and the source’s rights as a person, a human being,” said Balane.

Ferreting out the truth

Lastly, I asked ABN-CBN News Channel’s Christian Esguerra, who is also a journalism professor at the University of Santo Tomas.

To end this piece, I am printing below his insightful and meaningful responses in full:

1. What are journalistic principles that journalists could fall back on when dealing with sensitive interviewees?

  • The primary principle, to me, is respecting the dignity of the human person, which is often translated to minimizing harm (or, in the words of one journalist and scholar, making sure that unavoidable harm is inflicted only on those who deserve it). But we have to be extra careful with private individuals, especially those in distress, and should not treat them the way we usually deal with public officials. 

    In the case of Patricia Non, the question asking her to “set the record straight” might have been generally valid. But the context was important. This should not have been simply about fishing out a good quote from a news source. That’s easy to do. One can throw an inane question and solicit a newsworthy quote. But that would be venturing on soundbite journalism, a despicable sickness in broadcast journalism.

    Journalists should have first considered whether the accusation against her had any semblance of basis, or if it was simply a product of reckless red-baiting. To me, it was the latter and she shouldn’t have been put on the defensive. She didn’t have to explain herself. Let Parlade prove his allegation. But unfortunately, some journalists were inadvertently used to propagate Parlade’s baseless narrative. 

2. How does the journalist’s need to gather soundbites square with the interests of the interviewee? 

  • It shouldn’t be about soundbites or appearances, but about laying down the facts and ferreting out the truth.

3. Following all the online polemics that came in the wake of these interviews, how should a journalist treat these types of criticisms and online discussions? How could a journalist professionally engage, if at all?

  • Since journalists are in the practice of speaking truth to power, we shouldn’t be too sensitive to criticism. We can’t afford to be exclusionary (“You’re not a journalist so you don’t understand the job”). We are supposed to serve the public and be loyal to them. What kind of journalism alienates a segment of the audience or news consumers over some criticism? 

    Of course, not all criticisms are valid. Some are based on some vague understanding of journalism. Some are the product of misplaced “wokeness.” And this “cancel culture” also bothers me because of its propensity for abuse depending on who gets to fire up the online mob. 

    That said, we can’t afford not to engage the public. We have to listen and use controversies as opportunities for self-examination and improve our self-regulation. 

    It’s good that media issues are getting more prominence lately. But let not our reporting be swayed by whatever generates popular support on social media, or stymied by fear of being bashed. So long as our methods and motives are clear and our moral compass is firmly set, we shouldn’t lose sleep.

Bim Santos is currently the news head of PhilSTAR L!fe. He previously covered the business beat for many years for TV5, One News, and Bloomberg TV Philippines. His first mainstream job was as a reporter for BusinessWorld. His first job was as a researcher/writer for the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility