Philippine media

Why PH media need to change old ways in covering Duterte when he lies

Camille Elemia
Why PH media need to change old ways in covering Duterte when he lies

The Philippine media needs to revisit its old ways to effectively and accurately cover President Rodrigo Duterte and his lies.

Duterte photo from Malacañang

Journalists need to 'step up' their game to defend the truth against propaganda and disinformation

Traditional ways of covering presidents must be revisited, especially when President Rodrigo Duterte spews lies and baseless claims.

The basic “he said, she said” type of reporting should be abandoned in covering Duterte, experts and journalists suggested.

Journalists should help make sense of the chaos, and not just be mere transcribers, said veteran journalist Christian Esguerra.

“It’s very chaotic especially when you cover President Duterte. So what’s the value added from the reporter? The value that we add is to actually provide context and to explain to them (public) this is quite inconsistent, this needs fact-checking…. This is not the time for ‘he said, she said’ reporting,” Esguerra, who has covered past presidents, said in a podcast interview with Rappler’s Malacañang reporter Pia Ranada.

While fairness and balance are critical in journalism, University of the Philippines professor Danilo Arao warned against “false balance.”

“We cannot have false balance. Journalism is all about truth-telling and we cannot juxtapose the lies with the truth,” Arao said in an ANC interview.

“We are at that particular moment in our country’s history where the media would have to be critical and keep the torch of press freedom burning through responsible journalism,” he said.

Camille Diola, editor-in-chief of PhilStar.com, said “the truth is never objective.”

“We really do have to rethink it…. It’s difficult to be objective when you are approaching [certain] topics…. You have to have some bias for something – bias for principles, human rights,” Diola said in a media forum hosted by FNF Philippines on Monday, November 30.

The need for context and real-time fact-checking

Media initially gave Duterte the leeway – a privilege extended to all presidents early in their terms – but his ways have not changed since 2016.

With technology and social media facilitating the quick spread of false claims, journalists now have a new and crucial task at hand – fact-checking. (READ: How to solve information chaos online? Experts cite these structural solutions)

UP College of Mass Communication (UP CMC) associate dean Rachel Khan said “media should not allow themselves to be a victim of spin doctors.”

Arao said: “It may be nice for a journalist to contextualize and fact-check on the spot because if we just take at face value such false information, we might end up consciously or unconsciously spreading misinformation to our audiences…. Report the lies but you have to immediately fact-check.”

For live broadcasts, Arao suggested doing this via fact-check crawlers or by using a 5- to 10-second delay to ensure accuracy of statements.

Recently, GMA7 Malacañang reporter Joseph Morong drew flak for live-tweeting, without fact-checking, Duterte’s false claims against Vice President Leni Robredo.

In response, Morong said he retweeted Robredo’s response to Duterte’s allegations that she started the #NasaanAngPangulo online call after the onslaught of Typhoon Rolly and Typhoon Ulysses.

Rappler sought Morong for comment on the issue of real-time fact-checking but he did not respond.

For many, the mere listing of Duterte’s false statements without any context is problematic.

“Even if you make it into a thread, when you just enumerate what the President says and leave the interpretation to the people without providing context, I think the journalist surrenders his role as a journalist and descends into the simple job of transcription by doing that. Because anybody can do that, the Malacañang Presidential News Desk can do that,” Esguerra said.

“…you can use ‘he said, she said’ reporting in very simple and benign stories but if this is a President talking about a lot of lies and untruths, that’s a different story,” he said.

The difficult reality on the ground

It is, however, a challenge for some reporters to do the fact-checking themselves. After all, Duterte’s conferences are free-wheeling, without any structure or direction.

“On the ground it’s difficult because there’s no single flow in his speech. As a reporter, if you’re covering it, your priority is to catch everything he says,” ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo said during the FNF media forum.

Malacañang Press Corps president Evelyn Quiros said Palace reporters are facing numerous challenges in covering Duterte. These include the lack of access to the President, lack of transparency of his office, and the absence of timely updates on Duterte’s schedule.

Quiros clarified that her comments do not reflect the opinions of the MPC and its members.

A print journalist who covers Malacañang told Rappler, on condition of anonymity, that “information overload” is among their main constraints. This could be a deliberate strategy of the administration, the reporter added.

“The information overload is making it difficult for Palace reporters to immediately scrutinize the claims of the President and his officials, unless of course the news organization has a separate team to fact-check the claims.”

Quiros said it might be too much for junior reporters to do it themselves.

“For those who have been in the field for many years or even decades, it could be possible to immediately conduct real-time fact-checking, but for those who are juniors who might not know what had happened before, baka masyadong matrabaho (it might be too laborious). But as journalists, it’s our job to report the truth,” Quiros said.

The need for management to step up

Not all news groups, however, have separate fact-check teams. Arao said the responsibility ultimately lies with the publishers and media owners. In short, the change in mindset has to come from the top.

“We expect the media to step up…. At the end of the day, it’s really the media owners and the gatekeepers who should step up and who should provide proper guidance and training, if necessary, so that the journalists would be able to properly do their jobs and they would be encouraged to do fact-checking,” Arao said.

“The media owners should always give the assurance to the field reporters and anchors that it’s ok and it is inherent for media to be confrontational or critical especially of the powers that be,” he added.

The Malacañang print journalist shared the same sentiment: “News managers should also consider forming separate fact-checking teams so reporters can beat deadlines and pursue in-depth stories. They should work together to protect free expression. They should continue to expose lies and to help the public make sense of what is happening around them.”

On top of this, journalists and editors at the FNF forum also suggested using an “interdisciplinary” approach in covering Duterte’s speeches to provide stories with more depth.

For editors, this means letting reporters, who specialize on specific issues, to come in and write stories when Duterte mentions their topics.

The option to filter, cut away from lies

It’s also up to management to decide when to veer away from Duterte’s live ramblings, similar to what the American media did when President Donald Trump made false electoral fraud claims in live press conferences after the election.

“I think we have to rethink the option of cutting away from the President’s remarks especially if it’s live on TV and radio. Sometimes, there’s a tendency for the President to engage in false information, misogynistic remarks…. It’s very stressful for ordinary citizens to be subjected to such nocturnal ramblings,” Arao said.

Major US news channels not only interrupted the live briefing, but also did real-time fact-checking as Trump was speaking. One channel, USA Today, even removed the video from all of its platforms.

At the time, US-based media expert Dan Gillmor told Rappler that news channels “should not put people on live television when they know ahead of time that the speaker is going to lie.”

Philippine media have yet to do this, with some still weighing different factors:

  • the fear of a vengeful President
  • the need for his statements – which form policy – to reach the public
  • the aim to expose officials’ falsehoods

“This [boycott] would work if all our broadcast media agreed to do this. But, the speeches are aired over the government channel, so the private media is sort of held hostage,” UP CMC associate dean Khan said.

The briefings are also available on government’s social media platforms.

“I think we have the luxury of picking and choosing which parts of the President’s recorded address we are supposed to air…. We can listen to it, choose which ones to air without necessarily cutting the broadcast. But the question is: Are broadcast stations willing to do this? Because for one, many are afraid…. We don’t have to actually just accept all the lies, the deluge of lies that he comes up with each time he talks,” Esguerra said.

The need for courage

Esguerra also highlighted the need for courage among journalists, especially at a time when democracy is at stake.

“When you enter this job, you cannot just say, ‘I want to be a reporter because I want to have a salary’ or ‘I want to be a reporter because I want to see my byline.’ I mean, it’s a full package – you’ll make enemies, you’ll go up against someone, some public official will be angered by what you do. And it comes with the territory. You cannot just say, ‘The President is scary, I’m ok with just doing this, I’m happy with this.'”

He criticized the Malacañang Press Corps for being “timid” in its coverage of Duterte’s early years.

“What I noticed, especially under Duterte, I think the MPC, sad to say, (was) generally timid. That’s quite unfortunate, generally timid in terms of coverage of President Duterte, especially during the early years, the first two years…. But lately I noticed that the Malacañang Press Corps is becoming more courageous in terms of covering the President. I think number one, because of the realization that they have no other choice but to report it that way,” Esguerra said.

“My point is, we have colleagues in the industry who are not willing to make such a gamble or even sacrifice to the point that even if the sitting President or that President in power at present has been slowly and consistently eating into our democratic space. It seems they do not care and that’s unfortunate,” Esguerra said.

Quiros told Rappler: “I’m not sure if MPC has been timid. But I think when there was no pandemic yet, whenever there were chances that we could interview the President, any member could ask his or her question freely.”

Asked by Rappler how Palace reporters should cover Duterte, “known for saying lies, unfounded claims, etc in his speeches,” Quiros replied: “As a journalist, I don’t want to make a categorical conclusion that President Duterte is ‘known for saying lies, unfounded claims, etc in his speeches.’ MPC should report the facts and not make any conclusion. If there are lies or unfounded claims in his speeches, that brings us to…. real-time fact-checking. I think that’s what the members of the media should do,” Quiros said.

For some journalists, however, it is not just the so-called fear of the President. The print reporter covering Malacañang said “the toxic and divisive social media environment” has discouraged journalists from doing critical reporting.

“[It] can be intimidating for some people. Partisan trolls and influencers are making it more difficult for the media to engage with their audiences…. Some rabid fans and haters of Duterte vent their ire on journalists whom they think are not supporting their causes,” the print reporter told Rappler.

“And while some reporters will not admit it, this environment will definitely discourage some journalists from reporting critically. The cancel culture mob, which bullies people with unconventional views, complicates this problem,” the same reporter added.

In February 2018, Duterte banned Ranada and later all other Rappler journalists from covering him in any event and setting, even in a democratic exercise such as the 2019 senatorial campaign.

Rappler reporters and journalists from other agencies have challenged the ban in the Supreme Court, which has yet to decide on the matter. (STATEMENT: With Rappler ban, Duterte also violates public right to know)

The need for public education

With all the attacks against the press and the recent public conversations involving the media, educating Filipinos about journalism couldn’t be any more necessary and relevant.

“It’s important for us to educate the public on how to understand journalism itself. Many are saying ‘you’re biased’ but do they actually understand what bias means? We need to be really aggressive in terms of educating the public,” Esguerra said.

It might be time, too, for other news organizations to have a dedicated reporter to cover media issues, he added.

“I think that’s long overdue and a lot of media organizations should also follow suit in assigning reporters covering reporters because we have no choice now. It’s like we have become part of the story…. When it comes to media issues, we should be able to report about it because you can no longer live in a bubble,” he said.

“It’s time for us to come up with a more united front. That is what is important, a united front from media.” – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com