News conventions rule coverage: A qualitative analysis of the coverage of primetime newscasts of the 2022 polls

DESPITE THE emergence of other communication platforms, television is still the most accessible form of mass media and continues to rate highly as a source of political news and information in the Philippines.

According to a Pulse Asia research in September 2021, 91% of the country’s adult population get their political news from television, with 82% citing national television and 25% mentioning local television. Less than half get their information from radio (49%) and the internet (48%). 

The pandemic with its lockdowns actually raised viewership of TV content. The shut-down of the major network ABS-CBN disrupted viewing habits; but industry indicators reflect “now normal” levels. 

TV’s visual impact brings voters closer to candidates, who are fully aware of the benefits of media exposure to their respective campaigns. TV has the power and capacity to shape electoral agenda in so many ways, appealing to both old and new voters alike. 

CMFR has released five quantitative and qualitative analyses of TV news programs, providing thematic reviews of election issues since the start of the campaign period on February 8, 2022 at two week intervals. 

This study expands on the findings of our previous reports, identifying common and contrasting practices in the coverage of the primetime newscasts of four free TV channels from February 8 to April 17: ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol and TV Patrol Weekend, CNN Philippines’ News Night and Newsroom Weekend, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and 24 Oras Weekend, and TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas.  

The point of the exercise is to help improve the quality of coverage and encourage reports that will help voters choose their leaders wisely. Free and fair elections do not assure good government; the democratic exercise must be supported by all kinds of institutional and individual activities to promote democratic governance. This is most difficult to do in populous countries aspiring to become democracies like the Philippines. 

CMFR was among a group of working journalists and media-oriented NGOs that noted the significance of the 2022 ballot and worked together to draft guidelines for coverage that would place voters at the center of the campaign coverage. 

Over 400 journalists and 40 media organizations, including those from the primetime TV news programs reviewed by CMFR signed the pledge, dubbed “Wag Kukurap” to provide credible and contextual media coverage of the 2022 polls. 

This review referred to Wag Kukurap and its prescribed practices to check how media have delivered on their promise to do the following, among others: 

  • put voters at the center of reportage;
  • focus on issues rather than personalities;
  • challenge and correct baseless claims;
  • examine the track record and qualifications of candidates and political parties;
  • uphold code of ethics and professional conduct;
  • scrutinize and criticize officials and agencies assigned to conduct free and fair elections and provide an environment for the same; and
  • stand in solidarity with each other when journalists are attacked or in conflict or in other ways besieged. 

Media still aboard the campaign train

On the whole and in general, the media did not break away from the standard practice of reporting campaigns from the candidates’ vantage point. News conventions ruled the exercise. Prominence and personality imposed on coverage the need to follow the sorties, whether these provided the kind of information citizens needed to know about the candidates so they could choose wisely. TV news programs fixed a greater share of airtime to what candidates said, did and the local politicians and personalities who joined them onstage. 

Repeated daily, campaign teams led the media instead of the media setting its own agenda for coverage. News on the campaign fixed public attention on the candidate and what he or she had to say. 

During the period, a total of 781 reports from the four newcasts were on the campaign caravans and sorties. More than half of ABS-CBN and GMA-7’s reports were on the campaign trail. ABS-CBN aired 325 reports on the campaign trail or 67.01% of the total number of its election reports, followed by GMA-7 with 289 or 63.1% of its election reports. CNN Philippines and TV5 did better with the former showing 102 or 32.48%; and the latter with 65 reports or 29.28%. 

Other election reports focused on election laws, controversies, endorsements, and development and policy issues, among others.

Lead-ins and headlines usually identified where a candidate was on a given day. Given a set up program onstage and in the midst of crowds and campaign managers, little can be shown about the substance or quality of the candidacy. Reports may try to tease out of candidate statements the position taken on issues and actions that they promise to do once elected; but whatever a candidate may have said sounded only like so much TV prattle.

In the actual reports, which ran an average of two minutes, the focus shifted to vague promises, color, theatrics, and controversies.

Media diligently reported every endorsement that a candidate got, whether by celebrities, local officials or other individuals and groups of particular influence. But reporters did not explain the importance of these endorsements. 

Reporters took note when a candidate had no campaign rally on a particular day; but continued to follow the candidate and the schedule which otherwise engaged the campaign, including interviews with bloggers or academics and the like. 

All in all, the daily feed consisted of surface-level details: attendance counts in rallies, itineraries, special performances and appearances, and the most quotable quotes.

Some reports described the conduct of various rallies, among them Lacson’s campaign rallies that focused on order and discipline among its participants and Robredo’s rallies that showed a unique spirit of volunteerism, including the organizers cleaning up after the rally. 

TV news reported crowd estimates in the rallies of Robredo and Marcos Jr., but reports seemed tentative if not entirely reticent about the numbers joining Robredo’s rallies, which in social media showed phenomenal growth. Reports cited estimates by the campaign teams of the two leading candidates. In Robredo’s Pasig rally on March 21, organizers said that there were 140,000 attendees, while police estimated the number at 90,000. Marcos Jr.‘s rally in Cavite on March 25 was attended by 100,000 people, according to Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla and the city police. 

But while journalists followed almost daily the candidates’ campaign trail, reports did not take note nor directly compare the size of the different rallies nor the increase or decrease in the numbers in these rallies.

Candidates’ points 

CMFR notes that News Night highlighted policy issues as discussed in the sorties. On April 8, News Night ran a report on Robredo’s call on the education department to include Philippine history in the curriculum, Marcos’ plan to lower electricity rates, Moreno’s plan to achieve peace in Mindanao, and De Guzman who vowed to raise the minimum wage to 750 pesos nationwide. However, most stories of News Night lacked enough background to emphasize their importance.

The daily feed from the campaign sorties may have wasted TV time that could have been given to more lengthy interviews, featuring different candidates providing voters more time to evaluate the way the presidential candidate thinks, reacts to questions, and how much time he or she has given to some of the basic problems confronting the nation. 

With the sorties as the main source of election news, CMFR’s quantitative analysis noted the most quoted candidates and candidates who were the subject of the most number of stories.

The numbers showed Isko Moreno’s gift of gab, but the media did not examine the substance of his statements nor tried to establish his major concerns as a leader. Moreno always had something to say for the media to pick up, such as the Marcoses’ estate tax, his offer of a position to Lacson in his Cabinet, and

when his repeated call for Robredo to withdraw from the race.

Marcos Jr. was consistently the top subject with his involvement in many controversies and issues arising from his sorties. He was consistently in the news although he himself did not explain himself. 

The number of reports on Marcos revealed how the controversies hounding his campaign and his candidacy served to increase his coverage on TV, with more reports with him as the main subject and repeating the mention of his name. Unfortunately, these reports did not put him on the hot seat and did not ask the hard questions. Marcos was an elusive candidate but he still got covered, suggesting the willingness of the media to submit to the strategies set by Marcos’ campaign. 

Notable exceptions were: TV5’s special series ‘Bilang Kandidato’ that showed Marcos Jr.’s elusiveness to the media and the difficulties the media faced in interviewing him. TV5’s reporter Marianne Enriquez said that one should be ready to shove and be shoved in order to get close to Marcos Jr. Enriquez also called attention to the incident involving Rappler reporter Lian Buan, who was prevented from interviewing him and shoved by Marcos’ security personnel. 

Separate reports from CNN Philippines also mentioned that they tried to interview the candidate but were not given access. A TV Patrol report also included the brief note that when asked on the spot about the estate tax issue, Marcos Jr. simply turned his back on the journalists.

The coverage failed to present telling aspects of character, despite the power of television to do exactly that, if only news organizations were more willing to break away from the habits long established by the media herd.

Other heated controversies involving other candidates that were reported by the media included the following:

  • Red-tagging of Robredo’s supporters, 
  • Lacson’s withdrawal from his former party Partido Reporma, and his endorsement of the Anti-Terror Law, and
  • Moreno’s press conference that called for Robredo’s withdrawal from the presidential race.

Covering controversies and other important issues

Because of media’s emphasis on the campaign trail, more important stories were lost in the clutter. Newscasts sidelined opportunities to scrutinize track records, to evaluate the character of candidates based on how they conducted themselves on and off-campaign, and to explain the importance of controversies involving some candidates. 

Rule of Law

In covering controversies such as the Marcos estate tax, news programs relied heavily on the exchange between the Moreno and Marcos camps before the Easter Sunday press conference. Reports only briefly mentioned the all-important Supreme Court ruling that declared the order to pay the 203 billion estate tax as final and executory. There were only a few legal experts and former justices of the Supreme Court that weighed in on the significance of the document. All news programs however made it a point to give Vic Rodriguez, Marcos’ spokesperson, airtime to deny the finality of the 1997 ruling.

CMFR’s thematic review of the estate tax coverage had pointed to the media’s tendency to limit sourcing to two sides of the conflict, giving both equal treatment. This has imposed a false moral equivalence to both sides: the Supreme Court document and the Marcos denial of its significance. 

When there is sufficient evidence and facts to assert the truth in a controversy, journalists should be able to point out which side is correct, factual and truthful. Journalists should also dare to say when one side is simply covering up, evading the question, not answering the question or simply not making sense. These are natural virtues of the practice, to discern when there is a lie or untruth and reveal this judgment to the public. 

Notable exceptions: TV Patrol and Frontline Pilipinas did produce explainers on estate tax. TV Patrol explained what estate taxes are, how these are collected, and what happens when one fails to pay on time. Meanwhile, Frontline Pilipinas outlined developments that led to the 1997 Supreme Court ruling, which affirmed the Marcoses’ estate tax deficiencies. Unfortunately, the two factual presentations were drowned by the day-to-day coverage that featured soundbites from candidates and their campaign managers.

Isko Moreno himself was a subject of controversy when he admitted that he pocketed an excess of PHP50 million campaign funds for his failed 2016 senatorial bid, but that he paid the correct taxes for these. The public learned about the issue even before the campaign period, but journalists covering his sorties did not follow up with more questions about whether candidates should keep unspent campaign funds and treat this as revenue. 

In line with the non-payment of taxes, few reports have raised the subject of inordinate wealth. In answering questions on the Marcoses’ estate taxes, legal experts pointed to the fact that since the Marcoses have not paid the estate tax, the estate has not been transferred to them legally, obliging them to explain their source of wealth.

Reporters have kept clear of the issue of Marcos families’ hidden and unexplained wealth. Ironically, this was a major subject of coverage by the alternative press in the eighties working with some journalists abroad who had published stories about Marcoses’ hidden wealth. 

Media on Comelec 

Media did track Comelec’s failings; some more quickly than others. This includes the lack of transparency in the printing of ballots that had little follow through. Media reported it only after election watchdogs called attention to it in a Senate hearing. The Comelec was also the subject of reports when it flouted its own rules, particularly in Oplan Baklas which singled out campaign materials of Leni Robredo and in letting ballot printing go unobserved by the required witnesses.   

Citing reporters’ own observations or those of election watchdogs, TV also flagged incidents under Comelec’s purview; such as vote-buying, the use of government resources for the campaign, the delay in updating voter lists and the hijacking of party-lists by dynasties or big businesses.

Media also followed the resolution of pending cases seeking to disqualify or cancel the certificate of candidacy of Marcos Jr. due to his non-filing of his income tax returns. Much of the coverage cited the Comelec’s justifications, with only a few reports citing insights from academics and lawyers expressing concern about the decision issued by First Division* junking the complaints against Marcos Jr.’s candidacy.

CMFR has noted in its previous reviews that while media have been reporting all kinds of controversies involving Comelec, they held back in pointing out the pattern of incompetence that clouds the Commission’s integrity, casting doubt on its capacity to conduct a fair and credible election.

National Issues, Marginalized Sectors

Unfortunately, key election issues, both national and sectoral, were not as highlighted in the course of media’s election coverage. Issues on national sovereignty and foreign policy, corruption, food and fuel prices, among others, were mostly covered only after the debates or in special interviews, or when briefly mentioned in campaign rallies. 

But the events should have led to more segments or special features. CMFR’s thematic review on foreign policy showed that there was scant effort to engage the candidates more extensively about the issues arising from international conflicts and those that affect the country directly, such as China’s incursions into Philippine waters and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Notable efforts and other special segments

Broadcast news outlets did provide some content that broke away from the formulaic campaign reporting. News programs produced special segments for voter education, fact-checking, and sectoral issues, and organized debates and interviews. News organizations should have given more airtime for these instructive  and voter-centric reports.

Special segments

Ideally, fact-checks should be automatically integrated in the delivery of news reports, especially when these rely heavily on candidates’ claims. But especially in these times, CMFR commends the effort to produce separate pieces that gave more time to discuss the issues in question. 

TV5 produced ‘Fact CheckED,’ a segment reviewing false and misleading claims. Notably, it has covered topics such as:

  • The Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth and estate tax on March 22;
  • Senatorial candidate Robin Padilla’s comments on the local communist insurgency on April 12;
  • Lacson’s loose claims on Anti-Terror Law on April 14; and 
  • False social media posts alleging Smartmatic had gamed the election in favor of Leni Robredo on April 26, among others.

ABS-CBN’s segment ‘KampanyaSerye’ examined each presidential candidate. But the quality of the reports was uneven, and some presentations suffered from insufficient discussion or from lack of information about the candidates’ political careers, personal background and platforms. 

GMA-7’s ‘Dapat Totoo’ and ‘Votebook’ segment and CNN Philippines ‘Election Law for All’ segment helped voters make informed decisions in the upcoming election.

CNN Philippines’ ‘Sector on the Sidelines’ segment discussed specific issues in the LGBT community, persons with disability, persons deprived of liberty, overseas Filipino workers, orphans of the war in Mindanao, and farmers and fisherfolk, among others.

Debates and Interviews

All four channels featured a series of debates, interviews or special reports on presidential candidates:

  • GMA-7 
    • The Jessica Soho Presidential Interviews on January 22;
  • CNN Philippines
    • Vice Presidential and Presidential Debates on February 26 and 27; and
    • In Private’ one-on-one interviews on April 25 to 28
  • TV 5
    • Kandidatalks series on March 26, April 2, and April 9; and
    • Upuan Ng Katotohanan: The 2022 Presidential Special interviews by Korina Sanchez on February 5
    • TV Patrol’s Kampanyaserye on March 28 to April 1 and April 4 to 8; and
    • The 2022 Presidential One-On-One Interviews with Boy Abunda on January 24 to 28
  • Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP)’s Panata sa Bayan: Presidential Candidates Forum on February 4 whose major organizing networks include CNN Philippines, TV5, and ABS-CBN
  • The Comelec’s Pilipinas Debates 2022: The Turning Point series which was aired by all four channels on March 19 and 20 and April 3

Of the four news channels, only CNN Philippines held a ‘Senatorial Forum’ that interviewed senatorial candidates every weekend since January 16. Each episode interviewed about four candidates. This effort was significant as most voters choose their senators only on the basis of name recall.
While these debates and interviews made known the positions of the candidates, some focused on lighter issues and missed the harder questions. The KBP forum showed how much better they can do working together and collaborating across media organizations.