Not just numbers: TV stations and the Comelec clash on the question of quick count
Not just numbers: TV stations and the Comelec clash on the question of quick count
By Venus L. Elumbre
THE ROLE of the media in the last elections was tested after the Commission on Elections (Comelec) questioned the media-initiated counts, which started right after the May 14 polls.
Days after the voting, newpapers and TV newscasts reported that the Comelec had ordered television networks ABS-CBN 2 and GMA-7 to stop conducting their quick counts because these were unauthorized and tended to confuse the public.
“There has been no permission for purposes of consolidation. That will be confusing to the people. Imagine, you will be reporting unofficial (results). You’re not supposed to report an unofficial tally, especially if you do not show your source,” Comelec chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. told reporters in a press conference last May 16.
It was not the first time that media quick counts had been questioned. In the 2004 presidential elections, the Comelec and the Department of Justice issued separate orders stopping ABC-5 from airing its quick-count results. Journalists and media groups condemned the gag order, saying it was tantamount to suppression of press freedom.
At that time, when National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) and the Comelec started their tabulations, ABS-CBN and GMA-7 had already stopped their tallies. But ABC-5 continued airing its quick counts, prompting the Comelec to ban the tallies on the grounds that the station was not accredited and did not identify the source of its data. Also, since there was already an ongoing count by Namfrel, the Comelec deemed that the results of the media quick count might confuse the people.
For the 2007 midterm elections, ABS-CBN and GMA-7 partnered with computer schools Systems Technology Institute (STI) and AMA Education System, respectively, to conduct separate media counts.
The news executives of the two TV networks said they were simply filling in the 24-hour information vacuum, since the Comelec and Namfrel only started their tabulations days after the voting had ended.
“The people wanted to know how the candidates were faring. We have the duty to report it,” said GMA-7 news program manager John Oliver Manalastas.
ABS-CBN newsgathering head Charie Villa said the network had been reporting on the precinct counts since several elections ago. ABS-CBN began to take its reporting a notch higher in 1998 by tying up with STI “to provide a more systematic tally and tabulation of results.”
Assigned to voting precincts all over the country were 12,000 STI student volunteers and 10,000 from AMA to gather the results of the counting.
By the time the controversial directive came out, the TV networks had already ended their quick counts, having reached their target percentage of votes collated. The ABS-CBN and STI media count stopped on May 15 at 3 p.m., while the GMA-7 and AMA media quick count ended at around 11:30 p.m. on the same day.
James Jimenez, Comelec’s education and information director, denied that a directive had been issued stopping TV networks from conducting quick counts. All the Comelec asked the networks was to reveal the sources of their counts. Otherwise, “we might have a problem,” he said.
“It’s only fair,” according to Jimenez, because “the media count has been releasing these reports without, to our mind, sufficient indication of what particular precincts were being reported. So the results that came out looked like they’re either nationwide or they represented a trend.”
Jimenez explained that it was important that such information be disclosed to the public so that the media tallies could be understood in the proper context.
“We have no problem with the media conducting their own count. But here’s the problem: What happens when people say, ‘According to the media count, this looks like the trend and it should be irreversible by now’? And then later on, the actual results (from the Comelec) come in, and the results are different. Automatically, you have this seed of doubt planted there,” he said.
“If we can see, for instance, that a particular media count has shown preference for reporting results from places that are friendly to one candidate or another, then you know that the result reflects only that—the votes coming from places friendly to the candidate. It doesn’t reflect a sentiment that is shared by the nation,” Jimenez told PJR Reports.
He added: “Comelec had to take some steps to make sure that if these accusations do arise, we have the facts on hand so that we could answer the accusations. That was our only concern.”
Former Comelec commis-sioner Mehol Sadain believes that the requirement for TV networks to reveal the sources of their tallies was “reasonable.” How-ever, he said it should not be Comelec’s concern whether there is a discrepancy in the figures of the media counts vis-à-vis the Comelec tally because the former are unofficial and partial.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
Both ABS-CBN and GMA-7 claimed that they had repeatedly explained to their viewers how they were reporting on the counts prior and during the elections.
“We’ve done several stories to explain how we’ll do the media count. Several times we had STI and our research (department) explaining the process in all our newscasts. They (Comelec) weren’t listening,” Villa said.
She also said ABS-CBN provided the Comelec with data on where the results came from and the number of schools where the votes were gathered.
ABS-CBN said it got authorization from the Comelec to conduct its own tabulation through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed on April 16 by Eugenio Lopez III, ABS-CBN chairman and chief executive officer; Maria Ressa, ABS-CBN news and current affairs senior vice president; STI president Monico Jacob; Peter Fernandez of the STI education management group; and Jimenez himself, who represented the Comelec.
The MOA stated that “ABS-CBN has solicited the assistance of STI… in an election media count (the ABS-CBN media count) which ABS-CBN shall undertake as part of the coverage of the national and local elections scheduled on 14 May 2007 (‘Halalan 2007’).”
According to the MOA, the media count would be used by ABS-CBN “to give news updates on the conduct of the elections, including news updates on the initial tally of votes cast.” The initial tally referred to the media count tally, acccording to Ramon Osorio, head of ABS-CBN corporate communications, in an ANC interview.
On the other hand, GMA-7 did not see the need to seek Comelec authorization to conduct quick counts. According to Manalastas, “It was simply news reporting of election results. That did not require Comelec accreditation.”
The Comelec recognizes the existence of the MOA, said Jimenez, adding, “We (Comelec) had a stake in the credibility of the media count. If later on that media count is questioned as biased, will that not come back to haunt the Comelec? It would, definitely.”
“We would be in violation of the MOA if we actually banned them,” he added.
Jimenez, however, said consolidating votes was not among those agreed upon by ABS-CBN and Comelec. “We had a talk with them and said ‘we don’t want you to do the consolidation. It was not part of the MOA that you’re allowed to do the consolidation,’” he said.
Abalos was also quoted in newspaper reports as saying that what the Comelec allowed the media to do was to report the initial tallies at the precinct level—not to consolidate the votes.
But Villa said there was no point in reporting the votes without consolidating them. “Why should we not consolidate? Why should we not put order into it? Ano iyon, watak-watak?”
Sadain, one of the convenors of the election watchdog Halalang Marangal, had a similar view. “Consolidation is a necessary adjunct of reporting the counts. If you allow media to report, I don’t see any reason why you should not also allow it to consolidate the votes,” he said.
Tallying or trending?
Protesting that media quick counts were counting votes from bailiwicks of the opposition, Malacañang had earlier appealed to TV networks “not to trend.”
But both ABS-CBN and GMA-7 denied they were trending when they reported the counts.
“We simply reported the votes as they came in, without bias, preference, nor prejudice. From the onset, it was clear to our viewers and the Comelec that our count was partial and unofficial,” said GMA-7’s Manalastas.
According to Osorio in a report in abs-cbnNews.com, “What we reported on were merely initial tallies. The updates on the counting were broadcast only during the first 24 hours. I think that’s too short a time (to) make any sort of trending.”
Sadain also thinks there was no trending involved in the media quick counts, as doing a consolidated count does not automatically mean trending.
“Trending connotes malice on the part of the institution that does this. It is made possible by reporting selectively, meaning you select which election returns you are going to report. It is not on a first-come, first-served basis,” he said. Sadain added that to avoid trending, the results of the election returns should be reported as they come in.
Disputing media reports, Jimenez denied that Abalos had accused TV networks of violating the law. Jimenez said Comelec would still “look into whether the media violated the law.” He said injudicious reporting, such as trending, might be punishable.
A disinterested party
Sadain, who is also a lawyer, believes the media-initiated counts did not violate any law. Taking press freedom and the Omnibus Election Code into account, he said the media can even total the votes.
“I think it’s unfair for the Comelec to attribute malice to the media. If they’re saying that the media must first present to them proof of the source of the count, then I think it should be incumbent on the part of the Comelec to first say there is malice,” he explained.
Even candidates can do their own counts and nothing prevents them from having their tallies aired or printed, Sadain said. If that is the case, then nothing should bar the media from reporting their own counts “because the media is more disinterested than the partisan candidates.”
Apart from that, the media should have also questioned what the Comelec said about media quick counts, said Sadain. “(The networks) should have challenged the Comelec to show them a provision in the law that says media cannot disseminate the count,” he said.
ABS-CBN and GMA-7, however, have no plans of taking the issue to court.
Again, press freedom
For the two major TV networks, their constitutional freedom and the public’s right to information were derailed by the Comelec order.
According to Manalastas, “The conduct of elections is of paramount interest to the general public and reports of partial returns are part of the elections. As such, the press has a legitimate interest to report to the public the partial election returns, especially during the counting of votes in the precincts when official counts and canvass have not started.”
“The Comelec tallies should be open to scrutiny. We provide the check and balance,” Villa said, adding, “As it were, what came out was the same as the exit polls, the Comelec, and Namfrel count. There was no in-consistency.”
“If the Comelec could count as fast as people wanted them to, there would be no need at all for media to count the votes on their own,” Manalastas said.
On the other hand, Jimenez was disappointed that media took the Comelec’s “request” as an attempt to violate press freedom. “This whole thing had been misreported by the media. They could have asked us. Instead, they didn’t,” he said.
Jimenez said the Comelec, in fact, has been very open with the media by giving access to the election process.
“All of a sudden, just because we said show us the sources of your data, we’re being accused of stifling media freedom,” he lamented.
Stifling press freedom or not, the lessons from this year’s elections bear remembering as media face a yet bigger task: reporting on the 2010 elections. – With research from Katherine Anne O. Laurio