Reporting in a Time of Disinformation Demands More from Journalists
How do journalists cover public statements or speeches of government officials when they depart from facts?
This is one of the challenging situations reporters confront today in the Philippines as no less than President Rodrigo Duterte is loose with facts.
“We have to constantly challenge every statement that they [public officials] say,” Mike Navarro, an ABS-CBN television reporter, said. “It's important to constantly remind the viewers, and also the readers, that there's been a trail of flip flopping, or maybe a record of backtracking on certain statements.”
For Gemma Mendoza, Rappler’s head of digital strategy, journalists should read up on the issues, the background, and context to be able to report responsibly. But Mendoza said that newsrooms are “grappling with the question of whether you even report [the statements as they are]” when these are known to be lies.
“The gatekeeping function of the media also applies to live coverage, which includes live tweeting. But we have to differentiate between reporting –what was said as is—and presenting the news, because those are two different things,” Mariejo Ramos, reporter for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, said. “There's a danger in parroting everything that's spoken by government officials, especially those who have a long list of dubious claims. There's also a danger in [limiting reporting to] live tweets or livestreams. There has to be room for analysis.”
Journalists and editors discussed this tricky issue in the webinar, “Propaganda, Power, and the Press,” organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) in November2020 to examine issues in journalism in the age of disinformation and propaganda. Wolfgang Heinze, head of country of FNF Philippines, said that “it’s not always easy reporting about those in power and in speaking truth to power. For a functioning democracy, there should be a credible, independent, and critical free press.”
Fact-checking Public Officials
Fact the President’s speeches and public statements are necessary, Celine Samson, editor at Vera Files, said: “It is important that the people know when the President and any other people in power are lying. Because what they say, especially the President, translate into policy.”
Navarro explained the challenge journalists on the ground face when covering the President. He called it “a difficult balancing act.” Reporters have to “catch everything that he says and do the fact check right after the speech, Navarro added, “just to remind people that this is what he said and this is what's really happening on the ground.”
Mendoza, for her part, called for a “consensus among newsrooms in relation to known facts and known truths.”
Away from Beat Reporting
Newsrooms also recognize the need to rethink their strategies in covering and presenting the news.
Camille Diola, editor-in-chief of Philstar.com, doubts the effectiveness of using traditional ways of covering news. “I’ve always questioned how newsrooms have arranged their reporting according to beats.”
Beat reporting is a type or reporting wherein a journalist covers a specialised topic or subject. In the Philippines, this is usually based on geography so that the reporter covers places that are adjacent to each other.
According to Diloa, journalists “just jump from one topic to the next to the next. Many things fall into the cracks and the gaps are not covered.”
Mendoza said that Rappler is moving away from beat reporting: “In the past few years, we started using editorial clusters. Basically, different sections of the newsroom cluster around thematic areas.”
For Ramos, newsrooms have to give their beat reporters time to step back, to reflect in order to better make sense of the news.