The Role of the Media as Gatekeepers of the Truth
How Politics and Propaganda Affect the Role of the Media as Gatekeepers of the Truth
Pitch black videos filled with cries of help echoing in floodwaters from the people of Cagayan Valley surfaced on social media on Nov. 13—just as the National Capital Region grappling with the aftermath of Typhoon Ulysses dominated the headlines.
Residents on the ground have reported that thousands of Cagayanos were stranded on the roofs of their houses after the flood quickly rose due to the typhoon and the opening of Magat Dam, with some areas submerged 15 feet deep.
Ground reports described how some died of electrocution while waiting for rescue, with floating bodies yet to be retrieved that day.
However, several hours since the videos surfaced online, journalists could not verify these reports because media crews from outside the region were barred from entering the area due to quarantine restrictions.
Many have also pointed out that Cagayanos were kept in the dark regarding the flood because advisories sent mainly through social media were not able to reach most of the residents.
The shutdown of ABS-CBN Cagayan Valley, the only regional channel there, this year had created an information deficit in the region, a realization that even the governor of Isabela echoed.
And yet, we knew this could happen as we watched our television sets turn pitch black when ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcast network, went off air on free TV on May 5, for the second time since Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law in 1972.
In times of crisis—including the pandemic and natural disasters that the Philippines is highly vulnerable to—an unrestricted, credible and capable media is crucial to providing much-needed information to the public.
But when the news landscape is being altered by attacks on media ownership and the credibility of the press, it becomes more challenging to keep an informed citizenry and counter propaganda that aims to distort the truth.
For instance, the notion that media agencies critical of the government were using their influence to peddle “fake news” came straight from the president’s mouth in 2018.
In one of his speeches then, President Rodrigo Duterte accused the media’s “elite owners” of protecting their own interests.
He also disputed accusations that the government had been curtailing the freedom of the press.
“It’s not a question of press freedom,” Duterte had said. “It’s a question of abuse and protection by the elite of this country who hold the power. It’s about time you, the rich. Son of a bitch, stop your abuses. You are using the media.”
This antagonistic narrative against the “elite ownership” of the Philippine press that the President himself had peddled put journalists in a tight spot: How can they stem the flow of disinformation without losing the public trust?
Fake news is defined as the deliberate creation of pseudojournalist disinformation by certain groups or individuals who want to perpetuate an idea in the form of propaganda.
But media outlets that had produced reports critical of the government were also given the fake news label, or the “instrumentalization of the term to delegitimize news media.”
The fake news label against media outlets had become a democratic challenge to Philippine press, which used to be one of the freest in the world.
In 2008, former Chief Justice Reynato Puno called press freedom as a “touchstone of democracy.”
He said: “Democracy in this country is under siege because bullets fired at the the direction of journalists pierce not only human flesh, but also our republic ideals.”
Freedom of the press, he said, is essential to the welfare of the public.
Any attempt to curtail press freedom, therefore, could greatly influence how people exercise their rights and how those who violate such rights could be made accountable.
However, many institutional factors influence the preservation of an unrestrained and healthy media that could give a voice to the neglected and the disadvantaged.
While there’s a need to challenge government and market censorship of media and culture, the concentrated ownership of media and the traditional practices that stereotype, marginalize, or symbolically alienate minority views, cultures, groups, or individuals in the news are equally dangerous.
To be sure, the current media landscape is not without its faults. As pointed out by theoretical linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, “agenda-setting” media institutions are often owned by or tied to big corporations and conglomerates.
The nature of news as business creates power relations that shape how information travel from the mass media to its publics.
The larger media, or traditional newsrooms owned by rich businessmen, have more access to resources and media technologies than smaller media units, including local or community press.
With this unfair advantage, ownership can also influence how the media frame topics and report issues more or less the way dominant forces want them reported.
This is why the media, as vital institutions of democracy, should always be open to democratic challenge.
The spread of disinformation and misinformation is a democratic challenge that should be confronted by the media by amplifying the truth as an independent institution.
And yet with powerful leaders that viciously repress dissident opinion, some media outlets were forced to adopt a complex system of “filters” that could limit the spectrum of debate due to fear of reprisal, or to create an echo chamber that would ultimately marginalize and eliminate authentic and rational critical discussion.
If the media were to truly serve their societal purpose, they should be capacitated to widen the circuit of influence over journalistic discourse—from figures of authority to marginalized citizens—and to challenge the way society’s storytelling resources are traditionally distributed.
Time and time again, powerful forces would try to rewrite history. Yet, the products of brave journalists who dared to chronicle the country's grim past remain an enduring testament to the impact that a journalist can make in defending the truth and the freedom of information.
The demands of the times for journalists have evolved, in the advent of new technologies and media innovation, but their duties and responsibilities remain the same—to write as watchdogs, agenda setters and gatekeepers of the truth.
At a time when these three essential roles are being challenged, the best tool that journalists can have—whatever media institution they chose to work with—is still a healthy, rational sense of skepticism that would give them a clear lens to tell stories and to bring the public closer to the truth as possible.
Mariejo Ramos is a reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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