THE QUESTION. What was the question that set off the controversy over how GMA Network's Tita Panganiban-Perez treated Ana Patricia Non, the UP fine arts alumna who has been credited for spurring the a community pantry movement across the country? Reporter Perez asked:
"Just to set the record straight, parang wala nang masyadong tanong-tanong or duda sayo, meron ka nga ba'ng links to a communist group until now or nagkaroon? Ano bang basis ng red-tagging sa iyo?"
Non, 26, who pushed the Filipino's bayanihan spirit with a cart of vegetables and eggs, quickly answered she had no links to the communist party, continuing:
"Ang napaka, pasensya na po, ang dumi ng question na yan."
Perez was not being chummy and could sound as if she were repeating the military's accusation against Non. But how is the question dirty? Non reportedly said in another interview that Perez's question put her in a dilemma as she should not be made to explain who she was and what she was doing. Her intention to help was clear, she said, and that should be enough.
WHAT LIT THE FIRE. The question made her uncomfortable but the afflicted don't always get comforted by the media. In applying the two-sides-to-a-story rule, reporters must also ask Non about what the military said about her. A discomforting question is not necessarily dirty or unethical, particularly here when it is tied to Non's alleged CP ties, which was crucial to the story. The red-tagging was the reason she briefly shut down the community pantry at Maginhawa St. in Quezon City, the action that lit the fire of controversy over an otherwise ordinary event.
It was not even tough, as in really hard. Tough would be asking, say, the mayor about the public accusation of his councilor that an unelected person was cornering contracts at City Hall or the allegation of a corruption advocate that a "Kurakot Gang" has been operating in the City Government. Tough would be confronting Non with a list of the alleged anti-government stuff she posted on social media and relating it to her charity work.
BASIS FOR ASKING. Perez laid the basis for her question. She said it would remove doubts about her "links to communist groups" and seeking the basis for the red-tagging. It would not magically banish the accusation of Army Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr., spokesman of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. Yet it t would've given Non a chance to belie the accusation before Perez's GMA audience and even turn the table on the questioner: Ask the military, not me, for the basis of the red-tagging.
Could Perez have been gentler on Non and tougher on the advocate's enemies? Perez's direct, let's-cut-to-the-chase approach was not being chummy but her critics should know better what could transpire in a press-con. Not everyone is expected to behave the way the news source and other journalists expect him to.
The price for Perez, it turned out, was expected adverse commentary on social media and unexpected criticism of the reporter from some of her peers. Bad for Perez who was castigated for one sharp question and good for Non whose charity work spread across the land, largely because of the publicity from the furor.
LESSON FOR MEDIA. To practitioners, the lesson is plain: they can be criticized for their work, by people outside their newsroom, including (a) people who don't know enough of facts or standards to criticize to make a decent comment and (b) others who do know but have other personal or group interest to wage or defend. While before only editors and news sources complained about reporters' and editors' errors or shortcomings, now it's open season to anyone with a smartphone.
And look at how the range of attack against media can be widened: from one reporter's manner of framing a question, the critique has broadened to include all the other sins of media, such as conflict of interest, collusion with those in power, incompetence, and outright corruption. Worse, that can be used to argue: Perez was guilty because media is incompetent, corrupt or both.
There is some truth on any of those accusations against some media practitioners. It would help though if they are tackled case by case: in specific incidents, not in generalized and sweeping charges. If fired like a shotgun blast, assault on media would be no more productive than rote accusation of public officials when they beat up a news story they don't like.
DISCLOSURE: Seares is executive director of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council and public and standards editor in the SunStar Media Group. The views here are his and may not reflect the views of CCPC or SunStar.