Out of context

EVERY REPORTER is—or should be—familiar with the who, what, where, when, why and how of news writing. What happened, to whom, where it happened, how, why and when are the details in the news that immediately provide media readers, viewers and listeners the information they seek about the events around them. The facts are important and are the fundamentals that immediately provide media audiences answers to their questions on what happened.

But the facts alone cannot provide them the information they need to make sense of events in the news. A single event no matter how dramatic seldom provides the understanding of reality crucial to the formation of informed opinion about matters of public concern—and what is even more important, to the necessity of democratic engagement in public affairs.

A single event can, by itself and without context, even provoke mistaken conclusions about complex issues of public concern. The lack of background decontextualizes the news, wrenching an event out of the flow of the larger story of which it is a part, at the very least providing media audiences the illusion that events have no meaning, or at worst, leading them to uninformed conclusions.

The reporting on the conflict in Mindanao is illustrative. For decades focused on body counts, it hardened already existing prejudices among media audiences by providing them reports of seemingly pointless violence.

Providing context is thus an irreducible journalist responsibility. It is intimately linked to the professional and ethical duty of truth telling. Providing the media audience with a sense of the political, economic and social significance of the news is impossible without locating the event in a chain of related events and as part of a history.

However, contextualization can be the cover for partisanship in favor of a particular viewpoint, whether that of the individual journalist or that of his media organization. Rather than an argument against providing context, this possibility should instead warn practitioners that there is a difference between making the news understandable and using context to manipulate the media audiences.

The perils of biased contextualization have never been seriously advanced in the Philippine media as an argument in favor of providing “just the facts.” Common practice serves to sanction the absence of context even when reporting even such complex events as war and conflict. In 2000, for example, when the then Estrada administration declared a ” total war” policy against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), only 22 out of 1,633 articles and reports in Manila’s leading broadsheets and broadcast networks provided background material in terms of, among others, what the MILF was fighting for and the existence of an earlier ceasefire agreement between Philippine government forces and the MILF. In 2003, context was provided in 135 out of 2,894 articles and reports, which, although an improvement over 2000, nevertheless still fell short of providing the media audiences enough background material for them to understand the complex issues involved in the conflict. In comparison, the 2014 reporting on the peace negotiations beween the MILF and the Philippine government showed some improvement: context was provided in 396 out of 641 reports in three of Manila’s leading broadsheets.

What seems to have made the difference is that in 2000 and 2003 the Estrada and Arroyo administrations were focused on resolving the conflict through military means rather than the negotiated political settlement favored by the Aquino III administration. As usual taking their cue from government in 2000 and 2003, the media disdained providing the context and background of the conflict that would have suggested that “the enemy”—the MILF—had legitimate grievances. This would suggest that the absence of contextualization was deliberate and meant to prevent media audiences from appreciating the MILF position.

In 2014, with government impliedly granting recognition of the legitimacy of MILF demands through its signing of the peace agreement of 2013, the media put the agreement in the context of the long history of Bangsamoro aspirations for autonomy. The provision of limited context in 2000 and 2003, and the improvement in contextualization in 2014, were a function of media partisanship.

We are led to the conclusion that in the reporting of complex events such as war and conflict—and very likely in the reporting of political conflict and crisis—the absence of context can itself be a form of partisanship. Its presence should not lead the media audience to conclude that the information being provided is unbiased. The Philippine experience in the reporting of conflict suggests that contextualization, if provided solely because the media are taking their cue from government preference and policy, can be just as partisan as its absence.