Giving it meaning: Journalism as interpretation

MUCH of the reporting of the Philippine press and media falls under the category of what some academics call “descriptive journalism.”   It is supposed to be journalism that demands only that news reporters provide the answers –just the facts” — to the questions the conventional “five Ws and H” ask — and that it is enough for them to cite their sources of information. 

What makes the practice of dubious merit is that it assumes that getting and reporting the facts do not require journalists to make decisions, and that all that is required is the journalist’s willingness to  “describe,” quote  and report what this or that bureaucrat, businessman  or celebrity said, and that would be enough to  complete the task of providing the media audience the information it needs.

“Descriptive Journalism” and “Objectivity”  

It is this kind of commonplace reporting that the Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger dismisses as “stenography,” and not journalism. “Descriptive journalism” has nevertheless survived war, recession and pestilence, among other reasons because it is the operational expression of the “objectivity” that the Western news agencies advocated after World War II as the supposedly foolproof  guarantee of bias-free, non-partisan reporting on the day’s events.

An equally flawed concept, “objectivity” in the news became a widespread journalism benchmark also in the late 1940s in reaction to the tidal wave of propaganda that the media partisans, bureaucrats and apparatchiks of the contending powers during the most horrific conflict in human history

Reporting “just the facts” is thus what editors have demanded of reporters for decades—which, reduced reporting to formula, requiring only a minimum of  effort, skill and knowledge on the part of journalists.  The edict also ignores the question about which facts to report, as it is impossible to include in a news report all the data that a journalist gathers for a story. The journalist still has to make that decision, which editors are empowered to add to or subtract from, or to overrule entirely.  

What further complicates matters is that the decisions of both reporters and editors can be based on any number of factors, among them their own views and opinions and sense of what is really important. Apart from these, there are the requisites of editorial policy, and the personal interest in presenting the news in a particular way on the part of editor or reporter, or the preference of the owner or the demands of the advertiser. All these can influence the process and determine how the news is reported, what facts the news lead will emphasize, and the body of the report will include or exclude.

The claim that a news report is “objective” is at the very least debatable.   All forms of communication involve interpretation and selection which are subjective acts.  There is a place for “objectivity” in journalism, which is in the beginning, as the onset of the news gathering — when the journalist must get as much of the facts of a given issue as possible, so he or she can sort out from these findings a reasonable appraisal of their meaning.

Literary VersusDescriptiveJournalism

“Descriptive journalism” and its claims to “objectivity” should not be confused with, because it is entirely different from, and is in fact the opposite of, literary journalism.

The most outstanding and still unchallenged Filipino practitioner of that genre was the late National Artist for Journalism and Literature, the novelist, poet and playwright Nick Joaquin.  Writing under the nom de plume Quijano de Manila, Joaquin used literary devices such as description— of the subjects of his pieces, the atmosphere  in which events happened, the history of a place, etc.— in writing several volumes of reportage on, among other topics of public interest, crime, politicians in the news, and celebrities so that the media audience could better appreciate and understand what happened and what they mean. 

Joaquin’s literary journalism put a premium on context as well as analysis; echoing the the practice of US’ “new journalism,” of which another novelist, Norman Mailer, was the most prominent practitioner. Literary and new journalism are essentially the same in that both are examples of interpretive journalism.

Even the latter term, however, can be problematic because redundant: journalism is after all interpretive by definition and as best practice amply demonstrates. On the other hand, “descriptive journalism” is suspect because its depiction as a separate category of journalism is based on the fiction that there is a type of journalism free from interpretation. It denies the fact that all writing, and that includes journalism, is interpretive; it is a humanly-mediated enterprise that cannot escape subjective decision-making.

Fact and Context

Journalism is nevertheless fundamentally about fact-based truth-telling. Its professional and ethical standards assume that “the truth is out there” and that the journalist can find it, thus the emphasis not only on getting the facts but also on verifying them by consulting as many knowledgeable sources as possible as well as relevant documents. 

But because of the problematic consequences of having been pre-selected, the facts alone are unreliable guides to arriving at the truth and the knowledge men and women need to empower them into understanding, and if necessary, into changing, their social and natural environments and themselves. 

The fundamental commitment to truth-telling is what makes journalism the handmaiden of the democratization process, but as an ethical imperative demands that, having verified what is fact and what is fabrication, the journalist provide the context—the chain of events, the history—of which an issue, an event of public significance, a statement, a government policy or development is a part.

Getting the facts is indispensable to the journalistic enterprise, but is only the beginning of the journalist’s task. To be of any value, journalism must provide not “just the facts” but also their meaning, and the only way it can do that is to contextualize the news and to subject it to explanation and analysis.

Including a few sentences providing the background against which an event, issue or statement can be perceived, or publishing an entirely separate, accompanying article or sidebar to the main story are among the means through which this can be achieved.

An example of the first is the following hypothetical case:

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque yesterday said during his weekly press conference in Malacanang that the InterAgency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases of which he  is a member is likely to once more place Metro Manila under Enhanced Community Quarantine, but IATF CoChair Karlo Nograles denied that there is any such plan.

It was the second time this week that IATF members had contradicted each other, apparently because even they are unaware of what the policy is in the event of a surge in coronavirus infections in a locality, city, or region.

The account is not only factual, but also links the statement of its subject to previous events, and thus provides the news both context as well as meaning.

An example of the second method of contextualization would be a sidebar to a news report on the Department of National Defense’s rescinding its 1989 agreement with the University of the Philippines which requires the permission of its officials for police and military personnel to enter UP campuses. The sidebar could be on the history of the agreement, the reasons for it, who signed it for which agency, and how it has worked since it was implemented.

Giving it Meaning

It is to enable the public to better understand what is in the news that journalism has always been interpretive to begin with. The era of so-called “descriptive journalism,” even if it has ever been of value, has also passed. The world has never been uncomplicated, but it is becoming more and more complex as its populations surge and its problems multiply, thus making understanding it even more urgent today than at any time in the past.

One need not go beyond the country’s borders for examples to validate the necessity for interpretation, analysis and explanation in news reporting. Climate change is a global threat against all of humanity, the impact of which is evident in the number of increasingly violent typhoons that have smashed into the Philippines, causing havoc in affected communities, tragic loss of life, disruption of power and other services, destruction of infrastructure, properties and crops. And yet, the phenomenon of climate change has not been adequately explained, analyzed and given the context so that ordinary people can understand why the frequency and intensity of typhoons.  A citizenry adequately armed with such knowledge could demand a coherent State response to the global and national crisis driven by that threat, including a national reclamation policy focused on coastal protection. 

Instead the media continue to limit themselves to reporting the details of a typhoon approaching, the name it has been given, its expected landfall, its predicted force of wind, strength and speed of its movement; following these with usual accounting of casualties, injuries, and the cost to the national economy. While these are helpful, such information is lost to the winds of the next storm.

Critical as well is the need for the citizenry to gain some understanding of  the daily occurrences that may have an impact on Filipino lives and fortunes: not just the typhoons, the earthquakes, the volcanic eruptions, the floods and other disasters, but also the government policies, the crime, the rampant corruption, and the thousand and one other issues and events whose complexity  defies the understanding of millions.

It is crucial, for example, for Filipinos to understand why the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act is a threat to their freedoms; what government had failed to do in a time to check the spread of COVID-19 contagion; why the economy is in recession, its impact on future prospects and what can be done about it. That cannot happen unless those issues are reported— and, beyond providing the verified facts, explained, analyzed and interpreted.

As a consequence of media’s reporting only what, when and where a source or subject said, and the reactions of others, there is a crisis of information in this country despite the billions of bytes the newspapers, radio, television, and online news sites generate daily during what has been described as the Information Age. Recalling and observing the bedrock journalistic responsibilities of interpretation, contextualization, and explaining the meaning of the day’s news can help correct that anomaly.