Government and Media in an Information Age

By Melinda Quintos de Jesus

– So far, President Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III has been doing a great job communicating with the public and the media. He has brought to the presidential press conference a refreshing style, relaxed and easy, readily providing a lot of information and sharing his thoughts even when he is still thinking out his position. When he does this, he reveals an inclination to think around the subject, the problems that may make it difficult to implement desired action.

Even in these cases, he speaks often with a speed that easily overtakes the pace of recording and note-taking. While making a point, he drops leads to other stories that the press could follow through but in this initial stage most of them are working hard just to catch up. This president calls on the members of the Malacañang beat to “Listen up!” referring them to statements he had made before. Subtext: You can’t cover me cold, you have to remember the context, you have to come to this conversation knowing something about what I have been talking about, so that we’re not just going around in circles.

But he has been cordial and even-tempered and the press seems to feel glad of the change in the presidential style. Seen as a reticent public figure, he has come foreward to disarm and to charm. And the press and public have readily warmed to his approach.

He has promised frequent press conferences, a direct reversal of his predecessor’s custom to leave all the talking to her press officers. Tracking his exchange with the press, one glimpses the character he has brought to this high office and the qualities that hopefully will be the hallmarks of his term. The humility of this public servant is clearly not a role he has taken for show. He has always been self-effacing, and had indeed been seen as a dubious candidate because of the laid-back style. His words, uttered as though he were having a private conversation with people he knows well, are not scripted for effect. The lack of conceit and artifice combines with a readiness to speak his mind, and the mind has proven quick and nimble, with serial figures tippling from his tongue and policy options flowing from some neatly kept mental file.

He has not shirked any question. It is as though he had already asked these questions himself. And his answer comes first from the heart. Where am I on this question? What do I really want to do? Then, how do I make this policy? And the words flow with a directness that is breathtaking. He has processed the “technicals” to make these understandable to someone who has not given the subject the same kind of thought.

All these suggest a leader who is ready to govern in an information age and all its difficulties, someone who thinks of information as critical to sound policy making because that is where the search for solutions must begin. He has shown that he wants to share his plans and he sees the shared framework of understanding as critical to effective implementation. It is also clear that he is ready to engage the public so they too can take part, learn and contribute to the solution of the many problems we face.

Clearly, he has come to the presidency with clean hands and has nothing to hide himself. He has knowingly reached out to the masses, those who voted him to power, the ordinary man and woman struggling to make a living and wanting so much for a better life.

President Aquino is painfully aware that he will not be able to deliver everything he would like, nor fulfill all expectations. But he is all set to try and hopes to be understood should he fail.

The Press and the media

The term Media is currently used to refer to what used to be called the Press, the fourth estate, the pillar of democracy. It is the press and not media in general that plays the role of informing the public as citizens, not the audience for entertainment and distraction that make up so much of what media offers.

PJR Reports observes this distinction as a matter of necessity, as the purpose of the media monitor is to help develop a press that help to form a public forum for the exchange of ideas and news required in a democratic system of government.

A leader of a democracy may use the media to transmit information as a kind of theatrics to help popularize the message and to secure the consent of the governed. But President Aquino is a few steps ahead of all that. For him, communication is the core mechanism of governance in an information age. Both government and the people must use the public forum so they can work together to eventually bring about solutions, whether in the short or the long term.

Nation-building has become a vague word with little meaning. But there is no other word to use when referring to the partnership of the elected and their constituencies. Everyone is a stakeholder and stakeholders will have to take part in the process, articulating other options or expressing their approval or disapproval of considered options.

Inevitably, some solutions will require give-and-take among the various publics. Communication builds consensus. Participation in well rounded discussions of the most difficult issues makes it possible for the many to agree. Such an agreement would not be possible without communication.

The public forum

The quality of that public forum is often determined by the integrity and competence of public officials, who, whether we like it or not, are the most “credential-ed” sources of news and information. As such, they tend to dominate much communication space.

The press also plays a role. They could facilitate public understanding or cause confusion, picking up on color rather than the substance. Reporters covering President Aquino should bring to their job more appreciation of policy process and policy news. Given the difficulties left by the past administration, there will probably be more policy dilemmas to explain to the public, and more solutions that will involve some hardship than we would like.

Journalists in the Philippines have had much practice in covering political tension and crisis and physical calamities. Many turn to the media to know what the latest developments are, to be current and in the know. Providing live coverage, broadcast journalists have proven a great capacity to endure physical difficulties while getting information in hostile terrain. On another front, investigative reporting in the Philippines is probably among the best in the Asia, some of it competes with the best in world; although there are only a few true proponents of the kind that searches out evidence and sheds light on things that corrupt officials keep hidden.

But there is much to improve in the daily reporting on government.

In reporting on this administration and the many challenges it faces, the press is also called upon to shift from the conventional news frame of events happening, the mere recitation of statements from various sources, or even the cheap search for the quote of the day or the soundbyte that will be picked up by the prime time news. Reporters should push journalistic inquiry to another level, an interpretative and analytical frame that refers readers and audiences to context, to varying perspectives and to the inter-connectedness of beats, of issues, and yes, of problems.

Because conflict attracts, it serves as a requirement for an interesting story. We have come quite used to the style of reporting that tells policy conflicts as though it were a sport, specifically, the sabong or cockfight, where one or the other combatant must be vanquished.

Good governments are increasingly driven by diverse and competing needs to find “win-win” solutions, though perhaps not always to the satisfaction of all. These solutions should consider long term impact as well as the constituencies who are negatively affected or positively favored. The poor must figure most in the latter.

To explain these processes calls for reporting that is buttressed by technical understanding of the issue at hand. These subjects must be made interesting and relevant to hold the attention of the lay person. Modern reportage has relied more and more on well conceptualized graphs and charts to clarify the meaning of figures and statistics and to demonstrate projected gains and losses.

There are few periods in a nation’s history where a reform agenda has provoked so much public interest and excitement. So far, the president has indicated an openness that suggests his belief that information must be shared. What will the press do about this initiative? We can only hope that this generation of journalists rises to the challenge that the president has thrown them.

The press office

An extension of the president’s office, the office of the press secretary forms the third component of information-based governance. Every president in the modern age has relied on communication officers. In fact, it is one of the first decisions a president-elect makes. Who will assist me in speaking to the people? And the press secretary and spokesperson appear at his or her side in some kind of seamless choreography.

Ironically, this has not been true in President Aquino’s case.

In line with the purpose of communicating his agenda, President Aquino announced before his inauguration the decision to re-structure the office of the press secretary as it exists. At this writing, a communications team with three heads has been announced: former ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) public affairs anchor Ricky Carandang will “handle the communications and messaging aspects” while Herminio Coloma will handle the Philippine Information Agency, National Broadcasting Network (NBN-4), Radio Philippines Network (RPN-9) and International Broadcasting Corp. (IBC-13), both ranking as Secretaries of the Presidential Communications Group. Lawyer Edwin Lacierda, meanwhile has already been visible as presidential spokesperson.

The time in which it had taken the president to actually make this official hints at conflicts of turf among members of his campaign family. Some columnists and many bloggers have referred to Maria Montelibano, who handled media relations for the Aquino campaign as a power player in the situation. Montelibano, an Aquino relative, cannot be appointed herself.

In grappling with the message, who will make the decision? If there is no primus inter pares, who will call the shots and who will be held accountable? The president usually indicates the point or drift of the message, but he cannot uphold this critical front by himself. And the last thing he needs is a team whose members are fighting among themselves.

The mortality rate of press officials is one of the highest in government, here as in Washington DC where the work has been developed to an art or a science. The hothouse environment in which press secretaries work, the constant hounding by the media all lead to eventual burnout. They deal with fluid situations, requiring quick skills and grace under pressure. But the stress will cause embarrassing blunders which could force even good people to take their leave.

In this country, the institutional levels of policy setting and operation are still very much captive to the limitations of politicians and the culture of government, a reason officials with very poor skills have been able to take the position. Sometimes, all they need to do is keep mum and please the president. Press secretaries are often left out of policy discussions, or given impossible situations, such as obvious wrongdoing in office, are left mouthing nonsense. They become talking heads trying to fan the hot air.

The president had earlier said the team was working on an overall communication strategy. Another described the re-structuring to distinguish the tasks of “messaging” and the “dissemination” of the message. The public will see clearly on the national stage what results from the first. As for the dissemination, the different publics on the end of the delivery service of Philippine News Agency (PNA) and Radyo ng Bayan (People’s Radio) will see be the only ones to see what is delivered to them.

Information as propaganda

Every administration has had to figure out what to do with the Marcos legacy of propaganda agencies. Even when re-constituted under different names, these agencies have remained government PR machines, and government information which is a legitimate function serves little purpose except to enhance the image of incumbent officials, using spin and damage control when bad news breaks out. Unfortunately, most of these have proven quite inept even in this dubious service.

But by sheer presence, these agencies are effective in spreading the news in the local communities, and the faces and personalities that they present will be retained in memory for the next election. Unfortunately, these dubious purposes are funded by tax payers’ money which can be lost or wasted in corruption.

It would be more in keeping with the new administration’s purpose, to unload channels 9 and 13. As for NBN-4, there is a charter bill languishing somewhere that could be reviewed for the purpose of establishing a television station network like the BBC or PBS. There may be sense in exploring this option, given the investments made to keep up NBN-4.

But the problems will be larger than these questions. In terms of governance, communicating in an information age involves working out the terms of discussion in the midst of constant turbulence, those that come with the character of multiple information flows, or created by political opponents, along with the noise of the Internet, of Facebook, Twitter and the blogs. The most technology savvy manager of information must realize that the tools out there can and will be used to confound.

The beginning for the press team has not been auspicious. It may be too early to discuss the issues they are grappling in terms of power-sharing, but they will not succeed in facilitating the reform agenda, unless they share completely the values and the vision of the president.

Transparency and accountability, the leveling of the playing field, the recognition of citizens as constituent stakeholders – these values and more will be the test of the team as communicators in the service of the president and the people. – With research by Ruby Shaira F. Panela

6 responses to “Government and Media in an Information Age”

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  4. PJR Reports July – August 2010 | Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility says:

    […] Governance and Media in an Information Age by Melinda Quintos de Jesus with research by Ruby Shaira F. Panela […]