Why the media should connect the dots

Chay F. Hofileña

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An informed public will be in the best position to judge whether what is being fed them is hogwash or scraps

Chay Hofileña

What role should the media play in this historic impeachment trial of a chief justice?

Should it be a provocateur and spark debate and discussion, which hopefully, should be informed? Should it interpret and analyze events for the public to better understand the issues and their implications? Should it remain neutral and detached?

These questions call to mind the theories of the press, two of which are perhaps the most relevant to these questions. One is the libertarian theory and the other is the social responsibility theory.

Without having to sound esoteric, the libertarian theory essentially takes the position that every person is capable of deciding for himself what is true and what is false. Because this assumes access to information and an ability to process that information, the audience or the public are regarded as experts in their own right, completely capable of divining the truth in events.

On the other hand, the social responsibility theory goes beyond “objective” reporting and crosses over to what is referred to as “interpretive” reporting. The press assumes the role of an interpreter of facts and goes beyond a mere recitation or reporting of basic information – the who, what, where, when, why and how of an event. It does this because complexities compel journalists, whose objective is to enlighten a befuddled public, to do so.

As such, journalists make an effort to “report the truth about the fact” as the American Commission on the Freedom of the Press put it way back in the 1940s. This means explaining, analyzing, and making sense of events. It also means connecting the dots.

Collective wisdom

At a crucial moment when no less than a chief justice is under public scrutiny, and when the threat of a constitutional crisis looms each time the legislative and judicial branches of government appear to be headed for a head-on collision, the media plays a critical role.

Because journalists have access to documents and officials elected to public office, they are in a better position to make sense of conflicting versions of the truth. Does this bestow on them the title of “expert?” Does this put them on a pedestal superior to their audience?

Admittedly, a journalist who has done extensive research, spent long hours poring over documents or interviewing insiders and people on the ground with intimate knowledge of details related to the articles of impeachment, earns a degree of expertise. After all, an academic who does the exact same thing in a particular field, is acknowledged as an expert in that field. What makes a journalist any different?

Does this give journalists the right to consider themselves superior to their audience? No, because the effort to arrive at the truth behind the allegations against, in this specific case, Chief Justice Renato Corona, is a collective one. Anyone so inclined is free to interpret, look for patterns, or even raise questions about, his Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs). This is on top of all other relevant documents made public.

Members of the media may, in fact, tap into the wisdom of crowds to come up with a more accurate assessment of Corona and the cast of characters in the impeachment trial. This includes members of the prosecution and the defense, as well as the senator-jurors.

Many times, journalists come face to face with a lethargic public, too tired or lazy to do the math, or simply apathetic. Then it becomes the role of journalists to move them to action by shaking them with solid information that will either enrage them or even inspire them.

Driven by truth

Does this give them the right to influence or direct the results of the impeachment trial? It must be remembered that the goal of every investigation, trial, and reportage is getting to the truth, if not the closest approximation of the truth. For sure, the media does not have the monopoly of truth, even as journalists constantly strive to make sense of seemingly contradicting and confusing information.

It is perfectly all right for journalists – no, it is the duty of journalists – to challenge both the defense and prosecution, raise questions, express doubts, point out gaps and inconsistencies in supposed statements of fact, and even piece together pieces of a difficult puzzle – if all these will facilitate finding the truth. Did Corona commit impeachable offenses? What are these offenses? How were they committed? What is he guilty of, if anything?

The best journalists are probably those driven by a passion for truth. They will do what it takes to uncover the truth. They will strive to be as competent, if not more competent, than the prosecution and the defense because they know this will ultimately redound to the public good.

Journalists are neither lawyers nor judges who need to maintain cold neutrality in the face of what appears to be convincing evidence. It is in their DNA to look for patterns, inconsistencies and lies, and to point those out. They are shapers of informed public discourse, if not facilitators of discussion and debate in the name of truth.

At the same time, they are mindful of the harm that unbridled passion can bring, and are keenly aware of the need to balance it with fairness and respect for individual rights.

To them, an informed public exposed to a marketplace of ideas will only be richer intellectually and be in the best position to judge whether what is being fed them is hogwash or scraps. That same public – following a working democratic system – will be the media’s ultimate check. – Rappler.com

The author is Rappler’s Citizen Journalism director. She obtained her graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and used to be director of the journalism graduate program under the Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism at the Ateneo. She teaches journalism part-time at the Ateneo de Manila.

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.