Media and journalism issues

[Newsstand] The media is not the press

John Nery

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[Newsstand] The media is not the press

Raffy de Guzman

Confusing one with the other allows disinformation peddlers like SMNI to claim rights they don’t possess

Here’s an anecdote from the 1990s. A friend’s brother was waiting for a ride outside a convenience store in a gasoline station when a pair of men pulled a knife on him. Suddenly, a female journalist rushed out of the store, brandished her press ID, and ran toward the group, shouting, “Media ‘to! Media ‘to” (I’m media)! The startled men scattered, leaving the brother unharmed.

Much about this story seems incredible, even apocryphal. The woman rushing out to break up a crime in progress is only the most outstanding detail. But the fearless or even reckless use of press identification as a kind of shield hits different now, a decade and a half after the Ampatuan massacre and mere years after the Duterte presidency demonized the press wholesale.

Recalling the story now, I am struck by how dated – that is to say how characteristic of a particular time – the encounter was. It couldn’t have happened during the martial law era; I doubt if it can happen these days. It strikes me now as a relic from the last 15 years of the 20th century and the first 10 of the 21st, a high point for what we now call legacy media.

But in my retelling of this encounter, I used key terms interchangeably. I identified a journalist, I mentioned a press card, I recalled what the friend’s brother heard his rescuer shout about being a member of the media. In ordinary conversation, in polite banter, in informal settings, we interchange “journalism,” “press,” and “media” all the time. By and large, we mean the same thing, though we use different words. We understand; we are understood.

But the journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen, whom I have been following for almost three decades now (first on the internet and then on social media), makes a helpful distinction between the three terms. 

On February 22, 2021, in the depths of the pandemic, Rosen posted a 26-tweet thread that drew important distinctions (and that was itself a demonstration of the importance of making distinctions).

One of the tweets read: 

Media, journalism, and the press are not interchangeable terms. Yet they are bound up with one another. Media is the attention industry Journalism is a social practice The press is a key institution in a democracy Journalists who work in the media carry forward ‘the press’.

Rosen had previously made a distinction between audience (“people attending to a common object, typically a performance or spectacle”) and public (“people with different interests who live in the same space and share common problems”). He wrote: “An audience is not a public.”

He also wrote: “I think of the media as an attention business, an industry whose product is audiences.” 

Set of practices

By media, then, he means the system or the business that underlies journalism (as well as other forms of audience-seeking content). By journalism, he means the current set of practices that journalists follow, to do their work. And by the press as institution, he means (and this is my understanding of the idea) a democratic office – that is, a public position of some authority and service.

This was not the first time Rosen drew the distinctions. For instance, in a wide-ranging conversation in April 2012 with Ethan Zuckerberg, then with the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he spoke of this “tripartite” nature in depth. (See Jay Rosen’s Three-Layer Journalism Cake, or watch the forum on the MIT website.)

Starting with an ode to the political thinker Hannah Arendt, who was a master at making distinctions, Rosen prefaced his remarks by attempting to “pull apart” the three terms. “The practice of journalism, that’s one thing…the practice is what people do when they’re doing journalism.”

“The second thing I want to talk about…is the underlying media system that the practice runs on.” By media, he said, he meant “the way that we produce information, distribute it, connect people to it, in society as a whole. That’s different than the practice of journalism.”

Then he said: “The third thing that we should be able to pull apart is the institution of the press…. The press as an institution, first of all, is different from country to country. The reason it’s different from country to country is it’s very powerfully a product of law. If you don’t have laws establishing freedom of the press, you don’t have any press. You might have journalism, you might have a media system, but you don’t have a press because everything that happens is just a pale reflection of power. So until you have a public sphere, until you have a free press, until you have a legal system that secures the right of a free press, you can’t have a press.”

Threefold distinctions

I have found these distinctions to be decidedly useful. I had a chance to address a small group of United Nations regional officials in Bangkok in 2023 together with other guests, and I used my time to explain these threefold distinctions, and to argue that they can be used to align or prioritize UN work or assistance in freedom-of-expression and access-to-information issues.

Do reporters or photographers have the right to organize themselves as a labor union? While this question has freedom-of-the-press implications, it is (I submit) eminently a media issue – that is, it relates to the business or system side, as do questions about reasonable wages or working hours.

Should all journalists, including editors and producers, follow company policies regulating social media use? While this question has media-as-business implications, it is (I suggest) primarily a journalism issue – that is, it relates to the set of practices that journalists follow as they do their work.

Can a reporter be required by an executive agency to reveal the source of particularly damning allegations? While this question has journalism-as-a-practice implications, it is (I wager) firstly a free press issue. Journalists must be able to guarantee their anonymous sources, especially those fearing retaliation or even violence for the mere act of speaking out, that their identities will be protected. (Unlike, say, in the United States, the Philippines since 1946 has had the benefit of the Sotto Law protecting the duty of journalists to not reveal their sources.)

In the case of SMNI, or Sonshine Media Network International, the broadcast network owned by Apollo Quiboloy’s religious group, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ or KOJC, the airing of an erroneous report or commentary about Speaker Martin Romualdez is not and should not be cause enough to suspend its operations temporarily or to revoke its congressional franchise permanently. That is to give too much consideration, and power, to one man. The wisdom of that venerable libel ruling from the Supreme Court, now over a hundred years old, remains true: “Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience.”

Suspending SMNI for running a false report on Romualdez is abuse of power – but against what? Against SMNI as a media entity, a business organized to meet the communication objectives of KOJC. A one-strike-and-you’re-out policy is prejudicial to the officers and staff of a company that, because of the nature of the business it is in, is vulnerable to mistakes. If this unfair standard protecting prickly politicians were applied to all media companies, none would be left standing. 

An anchor or commentator making a terrible error on air is a media issue, because the inevitable occasional error is a matter for the company’s Human Resources department. Policies are or should be in place to enjoin officers and staff not to broadcast an unverified story, to correct an erroneous claim, to sanction those who err, to prevent a recurrence.

Pattern of lies

But what about repeated errors or, in the case of hosts Lorraine Badoy Partosa and Jefffey Celiz, a long-term pattern of outright lies and dangerous red-tagging? That situation may be covered by an HR policy too, but at its core it is a journalism issue. It is about the standards of care and responsibility that hosts of a news and commentary program should meet in doing their work. In other words, their record shows that Badoy-Partosa and Celiz have been doing the opposite of journalism: malicious propaganda.

Under Section 4 of the law renewing the SMNI franchise (through its parent company), the willful and repeated airing of disinformation is an outright violation of SMNI’s contract with the public: “not use its stations or facilities…for the dissemination of deliberately false information or willful misrepresentation, to the detriment of the public interest.” The case filed by the Movement Against Disinformation with the National Telecommunications Commission against SMNI is based precisely on this reading.

But isn’t the attempt to recall SMNI’s franchise an attack on the free press? What’s the difference between SMNI and ABS-CBN, whose franchise Congress refused to renew under pressure from Rodrigo Duterte? The difference is the purpose for which the networks are used and, because form follows function, the way the networks are organized. For all its shortcomings, ABS-CBN sought and continues to seek to serve the public (not its audiences alone) by reporting the whole picture. Despite its self-described status as a “nation-builder,” SMNI serves the needs of KOJC and its “Appointed Son of God.” 

Does this mean that no religious station can qualify as the press? Not at all. As Rosen argued: “Journalists who work in the media carry forward ‘the press.’” It is the work that serves the public (distinct from the audience). What separates SMNI (and also NET25 at particular junctures in history) from other religious stations is that it willingly serves as a platform for propaganda and disinformation. It does not serve as an office, an institution, of democracy. –

Veteran journalist John Nery is a Rappler columnist, editorial consultant, and program host. In the Public Square airs on Rappler social media platforms Wednesdays at 8 pm.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    I appreciate this article by John Nery. We need to properly understand the following words: “journalism,” “press,” “media,” “audience,” and “public.” Based on this understanding, we cannot be fooled by “nation-divider” SMNI. Thank you, Sir John.

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