P5.9M shabu and the girl of 14: helping the audience understand

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By Atty. Pachico A. Seares

Media's Public

Friday, August 22, 2014


THE cache of shabu that the 14-year-old girl was caught with, valued by police at P5.9 million, was what brought her to the spotlight.

Drug dealers used the Cebu teenager as mule, courier, or tender. She was under 15, well outside the MACR or minimum age of criminal responsibility. If police would arrest her, which they did, she had to be released to her parents with no liability, except to submit to a “community-based intervention.”

Many people have been cursing the law and its principal author, former senator Kiko Pangilinan. Congress still has to act on the public outcry to lower the bar: to the former nine years or to the “U.N.-sanctioned” age of 12.

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But that’s not the target of concern here.

It’s about how media can clarify things and avoid confusion.

Banner heads

Last Aug. 13, 2014, two local papers banner-headlined the charging of the girl with the prosecutor’s office. (The girl, a minor, has remained unidentified.)

Didn’t the papers say the girl was not liable since she fell outside the MACR? Why then was she charged?

Paper A said “Girl, 14, charged” with the kicker “For peddling, possession of P6M shabu batch” and sub-headline “Labella suggests seeking protection as state witness.”

Paper B said “Teen pusher charged” with the kicker “As witness proposal put forward.”

Citing the law

Stories in both papers cited the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act that says a child 15 years of age or under at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability.

Paper B reported that police pursued the case because they’re “serious in the fight against illegal drugs” and they “want to deter drug lords from using minors.”

That explains the police action, telling the reader the motive, but it doesn’t say if the cops could do it despite the explicit provision of the law. Was the exercise not illegal, unnecessary, and wasteful? Wouldn’t drug lords instead laugh over the error and misstep?

One day ahead

Paper C banner-headlined: “No case vs. girl” with the subheads: “Social workers to take custody of 14-year-old girl”; “Prosecutor junks bid to charge girl used as shabu courier in drug deal.”

After the third paragraph, high up in the story, the reader is told (1) the law, (2) the child being presented to the prosecutor with the filing of the complaint, and (3) the prosecutor saying the child cannot be charged and the charges “will be dismissed outright.”

Paper C didn’t have to report the next day that the prosecutor threw out the case and the police scrambled to look less bumbling than they were made to appear.

The paper wasn’t just one day ahead. It averted confusion in the reader’s mind.

Different kind

It was the kind of scoop that didn’t involve gathering of facts. It involved only a sorting out of data to explain police action that didn’t add up.

Reporters and editors knew about the law on children suspects. While Paper C didn’t report the police motive, which Paper B did, Paper C reported what would happen under the law.

Media serve their audience better and more if they clarify action of a government agency (or any other source) that doesn’t jibe or seems out of synch.

It was odd that police filed the complaint. Paper B reported why but maybe didn’t ask if the cops could charge the child under the law.

Cumulative effect

It surely was a minor omission, a small slip. But little things can grow, in a cumulative effect of erosion or, in the case of the careful news outlet, accretion.

But the instructive point for journalists and consumers alike, amid the flood of information, is that it helps communication and understanding if the message contains gaps.

(publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 23, 2014.

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