CEBU

Seares: Don’t ‘shoot dead’ persons even in a news headline... Was press silent over Governor Gwen acquittal?

Media’s Public

Philippine cop shoots dead mother and son on camera,

re-igniting nation’s debate over police impunity


-- Washington Post. December 21

Cop shoots dead mother, son in Tarlac

-- Philippine Star, December 22

To ignore headlining rules

A COMMON mistake of headline writers, apparently even in this digital age, is to use “shoot dead” instead of “shoot to death.” Thus confusing the reader that the Tarlac policeman shot a dead woman and her son last Sunday, December 20.

The above examples of news headlines illustrate the peril of using one and not the other. The first, in Washington Post’s online edition, may be misread by a busy reader with the “dead” describing “mother and son” instead of the verb “shoots.”

Same with the second headline, in the hard-copy edition of the Philippine Star. The breaking of “dead” and “mother, son” helps, but the chance of confusion is still there.

STYLE, STANDARDS. In the pre-digital era, when space for headlines was limited, headline writers had to scrimp words for space but were disciplined to avoid the “shooting dead people” situation.

Nowadays, given the ample space for headlines, many rules on headline writing have been thrown out. That, however, must be no license to dump clarity too.

Are the Post and the Times wrong? Not if their style rules or, absent that, their editors tolerate it. Anything goes when there are no rules or, if there are, with more serious problems afflicting the newsroom, standards are not enforced.

‘Hardly a whimper’

Atty. Josephus Jimenez, in his December 13 column in The Freeman, deplored media’s response to the Sandiganbayan’s acquittal of Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia, with seven co-accused, in the 2008, P98.9 million purchase of Balili land in Naga City. He said it was “hardly a whimper” compared to the “big bang” when it was exposed and the public officials and landowner were charged.

The lawyer-columnist himself offered a number of explanations:

[] On one side, people love bad news more, people are so filled with anger and hate they relish seeing their enemies plagued with a problem, we are full of “spite and iniquities” and “have not cleansed ourselves for the Advent to celebrate the triumph of those falsely charged.”

[] On the other side, acquittal does not mean the accused is innocent. Prosecutors were inept or lazy. the judge could be dishonest and incompetent. The purchase was presumed regular unless there was evidence that it was crooked.

“ALL MEDIA.” Atty. Jimenez could be exaggerating about the media non-response. While he used “all media” to cover the range of reaction, he couldn’t have meant all sectors: mainstream media (local and national, print and broadcast) and social media (news feeds, blogs, comments from users of such sites as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram).

We have no way of knowing. Unlike in the US or elsewhere that uses polls to collate news and comments on an issue, in Cebu we didn’t have such a compilation on the Baili case.

But coverage was all over for the ruling (promulgated November 26, published December 2). Page 1 banner headlines in the two Cebu papers. Breaking news and follow-ups in digital news sites, here and in Manila. Radio talk and internet chatter. They just were not quantified to qualify a blanket “all” or “a whimper.”

BAD NEWS SYNDROME. Let’s assume the “whimper” was the columnist’s own impression. But it is common knowledge among media watchers that generally (1) news and commentary over a “scandal” rise in volume and intensity when it first breaks, then slowly dissipates; (2) there’s less public interest in acquittal than in conviction except when the dismissal is patently anomalous; and (3) conviction is seen more as failure of the prosecution and judicial system than triumph of the innocent.

The news stories were sparse on the reasons for the acquittal, affecting the volume of post-decision commentary. Cebu Regional Trial Court Judge Gilbert P. Moises once called on media to devote more space in the news story to the explanation of the decision as it would make people understand and see the ruling as fair and based on law and evidence, and “not induced by suspected corruption.” The good judge must know that substance of the news heavily influences public opinion on it.

104 PAGES TO READ. And there’s a plausible reason for media’s recurring inadequacy in court reporting.

Not only do most Cebu reporters lack the expertise of a lawyer to sift through the complex legal issues, they don’t have the time or energy, in many a severely understaffed newsroom, to wade through think pages of legal text, which in the Balili case totaled 104 pages.

NOT FOR HATE. I disagree with the idea that regular media and social media commenters so hated Governor Gwen and the other accused that they didn’t “celebrate” the dismissal of the case.

Much of the public didn’t understand why the accused were acquitted in the first place. In much of the public mind, it was wrong to spend public funds for land most of which was underwater.

It took the likes of Atty. Jimenez and Atty. Frank Malilong (in his Dec. 16 column in SunStar) to explain why the Sadiganbayan threw out the charges.

But even that kind of enlightenment must have still left doubts that may not quickly unlatch. The court of public opinion often decides before the court of justice does. For the public to judge before the court trial ends is unfair, especially to the falsely accused, but to use Atty. Jimenez’s idiom, that’s how the cookie crumbles.


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