Philippine media

From watchdogs to mouthpieces: PR redefines news coverage in Cagayan de Oro

JB R. Deveza

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From watchdogs to mouthpieces: PR redefines news coverage in Cagayan de Oro

EDIT. Mindanao Gold Star Daily editor-in-chief Cong Corrales works from home in Cagayan de Oro City. Gold Star Daily now only prints copies thrice a week following a steady drop in ad revenues the past five years.

JB Deveza/Rappler

The effect of PR-dominated reportage has severely polarized the community media into rival political camps with directly opposing narratives

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Communications consultants and political strategists here are now defining how news is covered by the community press, putting local politicians in a better position to push their narratives and agenda.

Former journalist and now public relations practitioner Bencyrus Ellorin said their work had at times become boring after social media boxed out the community press in influencing the community.

Ellorin, a communications consultant of Cagayan de Oro Mayor Rolando “Klarex” Uy, said PR agents, through press releases and social media campaigns, now control at least 90% of how the local government is covered.

He said the press’ watchdog role has been largely diluted and the community press – especially local newspapers which have over the years seen their sources of revenue dry up – has become press release-dependent and polarized into competing political interests.

Journalists usually pick up some portions of their stories from press releases. By nature, press releases are framed through the perspective of clients who commissioned them and are, therefore, largely propaganda material. Because of this, most journalists often use PRs only to get official statements which are then verified and validated with other sources.

Hook, line, and sinker

But this is no longer the case, according to Ellorin who said he now sees journalists, especially print journalists, taking their spins hook, line, and sinker most of the time. 

In this sense, the Cagayan de Oro City information office (CIO), the communications arm of the local government, as well as the different communications departments of various government agencies, are now functioning more as news outlets instead of just sources of news, he said.

“Mas kapoy ang trabaho sa PR kay kabalo ka naman nga I-print word for word so maghimo ka daghan version (The PR’s job now is more tiring because you have to make many versions because you know it gets printed word for word),” he said.

Ellorin said there has, on the part of politicians, always been a conscious effort to influence the news agenda but the dominance of social media and problems in the community press have made it easier for them to push their clients’ narratives.

Ellorin said the PR industry has also indirectly benefited from the lack of opportunities in the media industry. He said hiring people with journalism backgrounds is a plus factor because journalists already possess good communication skills essential in PR work.

Atrocious conditions

It matters, too, that PR work, including those in government, pays way better than journalism.

Journalists have always struggled with low pay and lack of benefits, a condition belabored by a March 2021 survey made by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

The NUJP is an organization of journalists with chapters all over the country, including Cagayan de Oro City.

According to the NUJP survey of more than 200 respondents in March 2021, 44% of journalists and media workers receive a monthly salary of P15,000 and below. About 15%, mostly journalists based in the provinces, get P5,000 and below.

Half of the respondents of the NUJP survey said they are not entitled to holiday pay, hazard pay, and insurance, even when given dangerous assignments out of town.

The survey results also showed 55% of the respondents saying they were not given overtime pay and nearly 40% do not have health cards.

Given these atrocious conditions, it is not surprising that many journalists leave the industry. A former journalist who now does PR full time said he used to take home about P50,000 as an editor in one of the now defunct regional newspapers. His previous income now comprises only 30% of what he earns through PR work.

Also among those who left journalism for better pay is Abigail Malalis who is now a CIO staff member. 

Malalis said she left journalism in 2013 because her salary as a local reporter was no longer sufficient to cope with the rising costs of living. She said she now earns about four times what she used to as a reporter. She had worked for more than 10 years as a local reporter.

Malalis is one of four former journalists who now work for the CIO. Six other former and part-time reporters and broadcasters are with other city hall departments or are serving as consultants of the city government. 

Three others are now with regional offices of government agencies such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), PhilHealth, and the Bureau of Customs (BoC).

For maintenance medicines

Meanwhile, a practicing journalist who moonlights as a consultant of the city government said he does so to augment his income. 

The journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted to receiving P21,000 a month from city hall as a communications consultant. As editor-reporter of one of the city’s publications, he makes about P15,000 a month.

“Pang maintenance lang gud kay apikhan gud kaayo ko ron (I did that for my maintenance medicines because I am on a tight budget right now),” he said. 

The journalist has been in and out of hospitals of late because of a medical condition, and colleagues have had to pitch in and help, a common occurrence when journalists get into unexpected, financially draining circumstances.

Better press releases

Former journalists with communications skills honed by years of journalistic practice have certainly contributed to making better press releases for the city government. 

Ellorin said the PRs they now put out read like news stories – well-written and with coherent narratives, ready for publication. He added that nine out of 10 press releases they produce appear in community newspapers with barely any changes. These are then often picked up and amplified by others in the community press.

Cagayan de Oro City’s media community is composed of two community newspapers, at least five weeklies, and some 20 AM and FM stations.

“Nahimo na gyud ping-pong table ang media (The media has become like a ping-pong table),” said Ellorin, adding that political opponents of his client employ PR agents too.

Aside from hiring PR agents, politicians often also buy “blocktime” or airtime on radio, and have their programs streamed online, often with journalists or former journalists serving as hosts and co-hosts. 

Former Cagayan de Oro mayor Oscar Moreno has his Overtime with Oca Moreno, with some 48,000 followers on Facebook. Uy, Moreno’s successor, has Inyong Alagad, Mayor Rolando “Klarex” Uy, which airs both on Magnum Radio 99.9 and through Facebook Live. Former Misamis Oriental governor and now the province’s 2nd District Representative, Yevgeny Vincente Emano, and incumbent Governor Peter Unabia have similar radio programs.

Changing landscape

It was not always this way. As late as five years ago, the city had three local dailies – Mindanao Gold Star Daily, SunStar-Cagayan de Oro, and Mindanao Daily, aside from a host of weeklies that covered and commented on the local political scene.

But elsewhere worldwide, this all changed as more and more people turned to social media not only for entertainment or for socializing with family and friends, but also for information and news.

Local newspapers, many of which only had marginal profitability in the first place, became especially vulnerable to the prospect of closure or downsizing as tech giants like Google and Meta began cornering even local revenue streams.

Among the first to fold due to declining revenues was SunStar-Cagayan de Oro, which shuttered its print edition on June 30, 2020. The community newspaper, a local affiliate of the Cebu-based SunStar group of community newspapers, had long struggled with profitability issues before repeated COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns forced it to cease print operations.

SunStar-Cagayan de Oro at one point employed some 25 editors, reporters, and other media workers.

OLD NEWSROOM.A newsroom in Cagayan de Oro in the 1990s. from Terry Betonio FB page

Established in 1995, SunStar-Cagayan de Oro was unique in the local media landscape as it was the only community newspaper then that employed the most number of full-time staff members. Because full-time employment, especially in the community press, had always been rare and often, newspapers would source their content from freelancers or correspondents who were paid per story published.

To augment their incomes, journalists from many community newspapers are allowed or even encouraged by media owners to solicit ads so they can earn commissions. Local politicians, heads of regional government offices, and local businesses often not only become news sources, but sources of income as well.

Still holding on

Meanwhile, the remaining dailies in the city that have managed to survive have drastically scaled down operations.

Cong Corrales, editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Gold Star Daily, said the paper had a daily circulation of some 60,000 copies 10 years ago. Now his newspaper prints about 2,000, and only when ads warrant the printing of copies. Gold Star still publishes daily online, however.

When the pandemic struck, Corrales said, they had to whittle down the newspaper to the bare bones.

“Shrinking workforces mean more work for those who remain and less time spent per story,” Corrales said.

Architecture, Building, School
’90S NEWSROOM. The staff of the now-defunct SunStar-Cagayan de Oro in the mid-1990s. Courtesy of Joey Nacalaban

This is also part of the reason why, he said, well-written stories crafted by former journalists are finding their way to the pages not just of his newspaper, but also in others.

Corrales, however, said that while he uses press releases 80% of the time, he makes sure to label them as such for transparency.

Influence and control

Former journalist Carlos Conde, who was SunStar-Cagayan de Oro’s first editor-in-chief and who is now a senior researcher at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) covering the Philippines, said he is not surprised that politicians and other interest groups find it easy to influence or, worse, control Cagayan de Oro’s media outfits.

“They’ve been doing it for decades and the advent of social media made things a lot easier for them to do this: today, they not only control the media by the traditional means – they are able to directly control the narrative and push their propaganda and agenda almost unfiltered by the press,” Conde said.

However, Conde said that the prevalence of press releases dominating the content of media outlets is true elsewhere, not just in Cagayan de Oro.

“If you are a media outlet or journalist struggling to make ends meet, your options to do honest, meaningful journalism work is severely limited,” Conde said.

ASSEMBLY. Journalists gather during the general assembly of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club in 2023. courtesy of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club

The influence of PRs shaping the news narrative is a concern for Luz Rimban, a journalism educator at the Ateneo de Manila University and the executive director of the Asian Center for Journalism, both located at Ateneo.

“PR people don’t really tell you the real story. They exist to make their clients look good. In fact, some studies have shown that it is the bad actors in the PR industry that are responsible for disinformation on social media,” Rimban said in an e-mail to Rappler.

“The audience needs to be aware of the motives and agenda of sources of their stories. A government official owning a news outlet or having a social media account? Social media users should be aware that politicians are there on social media (or their own news outlets) more for self-promotion. They’re trying to influence the news agenda so that their misdeeds and wrongdoing are kept hidden,” Rimban said.


The effect of PR-dominated reportage has severely polarized the community media into rival political camps with directly opposing narratives.

Maricel Casino-Rivera, who ran the city hall’s information office during the Moreno administration, said this doesn’t seem to bother many local journalists these days.

“Dili parehas sa una nga mahadlok pud bitaw ta nga ma brand ta nga tao ni so-and-so (Unlike before when journalists did not like being branded as lackeys of certain politicians),” Rivera said.

Rivera, who worked for years as a journalist before joining Moreno’s group, said the media should revisit its role as a watchdog, as well as seize social media space, to continue to remain relevant.

Veteran journalist Froilan Gallardo, the new president of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club (COPC), called on the city’s journalists to maintain their independence from interest groups, especially politicians.

During the COPC’s 73rd induction of officers on March 17, Gallardo said, “We cannot rely on dole-outs and remain at the mercy of the politicians. If we continue doing that, we – the industry itself – would become irrelevant and eventually lose the game [because] the public would know that we are (sic) already bought and [have] become mouthpieces of every politician.”

The local press club, which counts 100 members from the broadcast, print, and online media, is the oldest and premier news media organization in the city.

‘Easier said than done’

The poor state of the media is making even those aspiring to become journalists think twice.

For instance, graduating Development Communications students Anthony Fornillos and Neil Culta said they were considering careers in journalism, but that salary is a major concern.

“Mangitag asa makapanginabuhi nga makabuhi jud (I’ll look for a job that can provide decent income), Fornillos said.

Dr. Shiella Balbutin, an assistant professor at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan’s Department of Development Communication, said the local media appears to be losing their influence on the community such that interest groups now dominate public discourse.

“If this continues, it can lead to biased information dissemination and will prevent participatory dialogue from happening,” Balbutin said. This is why, Balbutin said, academics need to do better at promoting critical thinking and should continue to strengthen media literacy initiatives.

Getting out of the morass of perennially regurgitating content pushed by political and other vested interest groups, however, may not be this easy.

“As a long-time journalist myself, before I plunged into the world of human rights advocacy, I know only too well the challenges many of my colleagues and friends face these days. But there is hope and the situation can improve,” Conde said.

“This is why I think the future of community journalism is nonprofit journalism. Media outlets need to get funding from sources within the community (through donations and like-minded patrons, but mindful of ethical issues) but also explore outside funders such as nonprofit organizations whose advocacy matches with the missions of the community press. In other words, the Cagayan de Oro media need to get out of the grip of politicians and interest groups,” he said.

“Easier said than done, of course,” Conde said. “But I can’t see any other way.” –

JB Deveza, a communications teacher at Xavier University and former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct SunStar-Cagayan de Oro, is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow for 20223-2024.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    This is the sad reality of journalism in our country and perhaps throughout the world. If this is not effectively addressed, we will live in a world ruled by Disinformation.

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