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Wednesday, March 27, 2019
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Seares: Handling the ‘narco’ list: Media cannot shut out story but can raise red flags

SEVEN media advocacy groups, led by National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), have called the publication and broadcast of a “narco list,” which the government said it will release next week, “a breach of professional ethics” with “adverse legal implications.”

The list, containing 82 candidates in the May 13 elections, may ruin the reputation and chances of the aspirants for public office. The media groups allege the intelligence reports and wire-tapped information (provided by foreign governments) on which the information was based have not yet been validated. Publication before the case build-up and filing of charges against the suspects will violate “journalistic values of fairness, accuracy and independence.”

The pooled statement, released last March 7, does not specifically ask media not to print, post or otherwise circulate the narco list.

Why it must be reported

The groups must know that the list cannot not be reported once it comes out.

For one, it is impossible to suppress or squelch the information: with all the media platforms and the mean-spirited and gung-ho style in pretty much of social media.

For another, with all the controversy around it and its impact on rights of people and institutions, it cannot be ignored. Those who solemnly talk of fairness and accuracy know that in most of their journalism lives they placed a high premium on the public’s need to know.

Authoritative source

Media does not balk at reporting questionable information if the source has authority, such as the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary or President Duterte no less. How much false information have been spewed out by public officials and yet were reported, which later turn out to be false or the media knew or suspected to be false?

Critics believe the new narco list is raw, unverified, and unsupported by evidence, citing the mistakes in the first list the president released on Aug. 7, 2016. Yet the law enforcement agencies reportedly lent their names to that list and presumably also support the second list that’s coming.

Warning, advice

No, the media groups didn’t say, Don’t publish. They just warned of the possible ethical and legal violations:

“invasion of privacy, denial of due process and presumption of innocence.” Would media in reporting and commenting be also as liable as the public officials who release the list? The groups said those aggrieved by the list might sue the reporters and editors that publish the story. They may and they can but the charges are not likely to stick, as most libel lawyers know. No one has been jailed for publishing a document officially released by the government.

NUJP, PCIJ and the other groups asked the news media:

[1] “To exercise utter prudence and fastidious judgment in evaluating the ‘story’”;

[2] “Verify, verify, verify. And do so independently. That is the first thing the news media can do before running a list that tags and links people to hateful crimes...”

‘Careful. careful’

By “utter prudence and fastidious judgment,” the media groups must mean the news managers must be “careful, careful” about the story.

As to the multiple “verify” advice, the media groups may be reminded of (a) the present state of most mainstream newsrooms and (b) the state of mind of internet media.

Multi-tasked, if not overworked, mainstream reporters and editors cannot verify the names before publishing. The most they can do is call the local personalities that may be in the list and get their comment. As to net writers, what else do they do besides typing “what’s on their mind,” often some snarky or hateful comment, or post an L.O.L. or a meme along with the highlighted name of the hated persons in the list?

What can be done

But here’s what media can do:

n Put in qualifiers to the list, such as “not yet validated” and “no charges filed,” as prominently and well-situated as possible: in headline, teaser or blurb and body text. Use them whenever a political rival or critic uses the list for election advantage.

n Include as much information as available about local personalities in the list: get their side, in next-day stories if they can’t comment promptly.

n Publish stories that rectify or tend to refute any part of the list. Sometimes, media hypes up the breaking story but obscures the findings of error that follow. Many people heard the president castigate a person in his first list but did not hear the apology he later gave.

‘Playing along’

Media cannot refuse to publish what the government says or does but it can publish information that shows the story is, or may be, false or misleading.

It is not “playing along” with the government when leaders “play fast and loose with due process and rule of law.”

It is called “doing the job.”


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