Lives’ labors lost (Updated)

“SOME SECTORS of media’s irresponsibility” is “killing the credibility of the media,” ABS-CBN TV’s Anthony Taberna claimed in a recent discussion with Philippine Daily Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan and a newspaper columnist.

The online news site Rappler.com quotes Taberna as declaring that “today, we (in the media)  don’t have any credibility anymore, and everything we say on radio is being questioned. Think about it: A government employee says you gave this person money, and without any corroboration or evidence, some newspaper prints this. What kind of media are we today (translation from Filipino Rappler’s).”

Taberna in fact went even farther: he claimed that the Philippine media’s loss of credibility is a problem even worse than the killing of journalists.

The claim that the loss of media credibility is worse than the killing of journalists is an exaggeration. There is no problem as bad as, and certainly no problem even worse, than the physical elimination of journalists and media workers. The problem of media credibility can be addressed and remedied. But there is no remedy for a journalist’s being killed.

Not only is death permanent. The death of every journalist also makes the pool of actual and potential providers of public information and enlightenment so much shallower, and each death has an impact not only on the slain practitioner’s family, but also on his or her immediate community and society as a whole. A hundred and forty-two (142) journalists killed—the record so far since 1986—means 142 workers in behalf of the human and Filipino need for information lost.

But how credible are the Philippine media in the first place? Despite Taberna’s exaggerated appreciation of the costs of media’s loss of credibility, the question is still crucial to the media’s capacity to serve as the major source of the information every human being needs.

It may not be a problem worse than the killing of journalists, but it’s bad enough. Whether their audiences believe the truth of what the media disseminate as information, commentary and analysis is important to democracy and the democratization process. The citizenry that’s supposedly sovereign in a democracy cannot intelligently decide on matters of common concern without reliable information. If the information is regularly made available but nevertheless met with skepticism, that information would be of little value.

The answer to the question of how credible are the media is “It depends on which sector of society is doing the evaluation.” The sizeable number of citizens with access to the social media regularly bash the old media—the newspapers,  TV and radio—for their supposed bias, inaccuracy and emphasis on violence, celebrity news, and trivia, implying thereby that they don’t think the media to be trustworthy. What those citizens with limited or no access to the Net are thinking no research has definitely established. But the assumption that they’re less critical, and therefore more trusting of the menu of soaps, fantasy series, noontime shows and canned material as well as the news programs to which they are regularly subjected may be mistaken.

There is some research on the subject, though limited. Pulse Asia did claim a decade or so ago  that TV was the most credible among the media, but primarily because it is the medium to which most Filipinos have access rather than print or radio. A University of the Philippines (UP) College of Mass Communication study on tabloid readership, meanwhile, found that the readers of tabloids are dissatisfied with what they read, and would welcome reports relevant to such concerns as why there aren’t enough jobs to go around and why the prices of basic commodities keep rising, implying thereby that they don’t necessarily trust, or even remember, what they read.

The same UP study found that credibility among  tabloid readers had little to do with media consumption. The tabloids are read because they’re in Filipino and are cheaper per copy than the broadsheets. It’s not a matter of choice but of the absence of choices, raising the possibility that the same process is at work among the TV audience. It may not be so much a case of the media audiences’ uncritically accepting and believing what they read, hear and see either, as a case of their keeping silent despite their reservations because no one’s been asking for their opinions.

Such market research groups as Nielsen have established that the media, primarily television as the medium with the longest reach, is accessed not so much for information as for entertainment. Media credibility, however, has more to do with audiences’ trusting the accuracy and fairness of what they read, see and hear in the news rather than in the entertainment programs.

The main factor in the credibility of the media is whether accuracy and fairness regularly characterize their issuances, whether these are news reports, commentaries, or analyses. A track record is important to trustworthiness, and eventually leads to the making of a reputation for reliability. However, both recent as well as past experience suggests that the media audiences are prepared to give media organizations the benefit of the doubt. It takes a long time, and a consistent record of falsehood and bias, for them to finally lose their trust of even the worst media organization.

The Philippine experience during the martial law period is instructive. Despite government regulation of media organizations—and despite some of these organizations’ being themselves owned and controlled by Ferdinand Marcos’ own officials, cronies and relatives—the media audiences continued to read, listen and watch them, quite simply because, during the first  years of  martial law, they had no other choice. When the contemporary successors to the alternative press tradition began publication, however, what has been called “the crony press” rapidly lost credibility, even if they managed to retain their audiences until Marcos was overthrown.

The key factor was, and still is, the availability of options. The contemporary media situation in the Philippines does seem to offer the discerning media consumer enough choices, whether among the TV networks and radio stations, among the broadsheets, between the old media and the new, and increasingly, especially among Filipinos abroad, between the dominant and the alternative media. It should eventually tell in the TV ratings, the newspaper circulations, and the number of online hits. For much of the Philippine media, that’s what matters most, and helps explain why some practitioners think the loss of credibility worse than the loss of lives.