Thursday, December 02, 2021

Seares: First stories relied solely on mayor's claim, didn't question what COA meant. It was no 'kuryente,' news was for real.

Medias Public

"DID Cebu media miss this? How come?" -- A lawyer-former journalist, in a Facebook post to friends, July 13, 2021

Where the papers can be faulted

The initial stories of July 8 and 10 in two papers didn't make it clear that the "unmodified opinion" referred to the manner of submission of the audit requirements, not to findings after the review of transactions.

SunStar, in its July 11 Explainer, cited the difference but that should not take away, it said, the achievement made by City Hall on complying with COA rules. The news feed said COA's "five-paragraph letter talks about the basis for its unmodified opinion, responsibilities of city managers and those who govern, and the auditor's responsibilities."

"It does not say that all the transactions were wise and prudent and free of any irregularity. It only says the city complied with the standards of reporting."

Where they didn't err

The initial stories of July 8 and 10 in two newspapers were deficient in not explaining what an unmodified opinion is and clarifying that it was not yet the full report, as it dealt only with the manner and time of submitting the required papers. Apparently, no verification was made on the meaning of the COA remark/opinion that readers understand. Thus, it failed to alert the breaking story readers. SunStar's Explainer two days later pointed out what the COA letter said and didn't say.

But the two papers cannot be blamed for not reporting on any suspected discrepancies and irregularities as there was no COA report released yet at the time. As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 14, it had not yet appeared on the COA website, according to Innopub's Max Limpag, who advised media to wait: "I would rather wait for official publication on the COA website."

Which was what the two papers did in their initial reporting. By design or plain default or failure, they didn't contradict the claim of victory by City Hall.

One local news site, CDN Digital, reported only on Wednesday, July 14, at 9:30 a.m. (Headline: "COA flags Cebu City's purchase of P90 million Covid test kits, machine"). The news story said a copy of the report dated June 14, 2021 and signed by Regional Director Marilou Rizarri was "furnished to reporters."

Mayor's message started it

Last Thursday, July 8, Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella issued a statement accompanied with his photo and lift-out quote against red background with the official seal of the city.

He was "happy to announce," he said, that the city was given an unmodified opinion on its "financial transactions" for 2020. The 12-paragraph message said it was the first time in its history the City received such a rating, It meant, he said, the spending of people's money in 2020 followed the law and regulations.

The mayor's Facebook page and City Hall's public information news site carried the announcement. So did the FB page of City Administrator Floro Casas Jr., which did more by carrying a montage of images: the mayor's lift-out quote, a graphic showing the comparative performance of the mayors, and the letter of COA to the mayor. Other persons allied with Labella's camp picked up the item and re-posted it on their FB accounts.

Initial story in 2 papers

[1] STORY ONE. On July 8, the same day the mayor's message was posted on Facebook, SunStar headlined its story, "Cebu City receives highest audit rating." Everything in it was sourced to the Labella message and the COA letter. The tagline "PR" at the story's end says it was contributed, obviously from City Hall.

[2] STORY TWO. In The Freeman, the other local English-language paper, had this headline in its July 10-dated story: "Cebu City gets high remarks from COA." Its sources were the mayor's announcement, City Administrator Casas's comments about the report being a vindication over negative comments against Labella's administration, and "the city being "being in good hands." One paragraph contains a recall of criticisms on alleged overpricing of goods City Hall bought for pandemic victims.

There was no breaking story seen in Cebu Daily News Digital. But it ran Wednesday, July 14, the news about COA flagging some City Hall purchases.

Not 'kuryente' but standards

Was the initial story a bum steer, a false story, planted or otherwise, a case of "na-kuryente" (translation: electrocuted) in journalese?

The news came from Mayor Labella, posted on his FB wall, circulated by the City Hall PIO and the city administrator. It was based on the COA letter to the mayor. The mayor and his chief aide and publicist have not disowned the news.

As to the full report on COA's findings, it was not yet available until Wednesday, July 14, but even at this time, the material is not yet officially released.

Not “kuryente,” no. A deficiency of standards, yes: no verification on meaning and impact. SunStar filled the gap in the July 8 story with the Explainer news of July 11 and the Bzzzzz item of July 13: the opinion/remark from COA was not the full audit.

Shortage in standards happens in the news business. But most news groups strive to avoid it and fill the gap when it happens. After all, that's what separates newspapers from dubious sources peddling wrong information without being bothered about standards.


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