WHAT SET OFF ALL THE NOISE. Last Wednesday, April 27, Rappler posted three photos on the opening of CCLEX or Cebu-Cordova Link Expressway, the third bridge linking Mactan to the mainland. One of the photos showed the bridge as background of shanties in adjacent Pasil community.

An uproar followed: negative reactions that said Rappler published the photos with ill-will and spite. And the comments defending the use of the photos.

[1] THE GOOD FROM THE CONTROVERSY must come first. It has brought to the surface the issue of poverty, up front if only briefly in the local election campaign. Even as we celebrate Cebu's success, there's the need to solve the urban blight that comes with progress.

And people are talking about it. Public conversation -- minus the usual heap of garbage (insults, ad hominems and bad logic and grammar that come from blissful ignorance or mindless partisanship) -- has resurfaced valuable precepts about the truth and the duty of the press to pursue it. And the comments made in their defense must do the civic sector proud.

At least one big local political figure, Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama, affirmed that urban blight exists in his city. He said Pasil, which one Rappler photo publicized, was part of the original plan but was dropped. CCLEX was to include Pasil and Guadalupe in the development. Former mayor Tomas Osmeña, whose wife Margot is running against Mike Rama, said it was Rama who made the change. That's another issue but this we know for now: the local leaders do recognize the problem.

And the photo/s, as backdrop to the Third Bridge, helped bring it up again. Rama's disclosure that coastal areas such as Pasil are integrated in his master plan for the city if elected offers some hope, from which his political rivals may take cue.

[2] THE ISSUE OF JOURNALISM, which is the center of the storm, rests mainly on the alleged malice of Rappler. The problem though is that malice is a state of the mind and can be proved largely by the product criticized: the April 27 publication of three photos. (Unless there's evidence of Rappler editors plotting to slander Cebu and the Duterte administration.)

The photos, separately and taken together, through display or layout, don't lend any support to the allegation of malice or erroneous evaluation.

Nothing in the post shows violation of journalistic standard. And Rappler has the right to raise the issue even if the photo is hardly a direct indictment of government failure to reduce poverty in Cebu.

A media association talked about press freedom. There's no attempt to muzzle the press this time; the public doesn't see it. Rappler has the right to publish; it does. Its consumers, critics and defenders alike, have the right to judge Rappler's content; they do.

[2] CONTRASTING VIEWPOINTS. Critics who howled over the publication accuse the digital news organization of ill will or spite, bent on thrashing the administration. Most critics can cite similar past incidents, in which Rappler was depicted as villain to the ruling leaders. Apparently, it's allocation of guilt on the basis of perceived track record.

Some critics talk of "bad-taste" or "destructive" journalism. The first apparently refers to the display of Pasil shanties, not just the bridge, the figurative dirty half-slip spoiling the lovely gown, on inaugural day. The second must be the bad name Cebu is assumed to get from the publicity.

[3] CHOOSING PHOTOS. As a matter of practice, the photos are submitted to the editor who, with or without the photographer's help, picks which to use. The photographer is accused of malice but he (in this case she, one Jacqueline Hernandez) is not the decider, unless of course she directly uploaded the post from Cebu, but even that would still be reviewed by the editor.

The editor is guided by the standards of his news outlet, which include the intrinsic merit of the photo and its relevance to the story -- and whether it's interesting. Photographer Vic Kintanar gushed over the artistry in the shoot, including the device of a part of the image leading the viewer to see or imagine more than what's shown. Communications lecturer Karlon Rama talked of "juxtaposition" of images of affluence and poverty, the bridge providing access and mobility while shanty occupants are trapped in their small spaces.



[4] SPOTTING MALICE. Was Rappler being malicious? Was the editor being mean in the choice of photos?

It seems not to show if you examine the original display of one large photo and two smaller ones. The large photo dominating the spread shows the bridge in its splendor. It's only the small photo at lower left where the shanties "spoil" half of the image. The emphasis in the layout tells us the editor placed higher value on the bridge opening with the shanties photo as one side image.

Some re-posts of the Rappler news feed, however picked only the "offensive" photo to support whatever the comment strived to push. Dropping the original layout and enlarging only the bridge-and-shanties image distorted the message, magnifying the secondary story, the poverty at the Pasil slums. Rappler may no longer be responsible for the changes in the material when re-posted.

[5] IMPACT ON ADMINISTRATION, CEBU. Critics of the photos say they tend to damage the Duterte government as it gives the message that it has failed to eliminate poverty.

Same "assault" on the City Government; the slums, located not far from City Hall, have been there through the years, with different mayors and City Councils not doing enough.

The images, critics also allege, were an insult to Cebuanos whose day of glory from the inaugural of its third bridge was "sullied" by the publication: rain on Cebu's parade.

So what, the counter-argument runs, it's true. The photos were genuine, not doctored, the editorial decision is defensible. Journalist Bong Wenceslao, wearied by the fire and counter-fire, said, I have only one question, Is it true?

[6] MISPLACED OUTRAGE? As to the presumed sensitivity of Cebuanos, what matters most: the window-dressing, never mind the poverty?

Media specialist Max Limpag lamented an apparent misplaced public anger: "I read some people's posts. Let me get this straight, they are offended by the photo, not by the poverty?" "I wish people were more outraged by the COA findings (on corruption and waste of public funds) than by the Rappler photo." Columnist, blogger and "anti-Marcos advocate" Anol Mongaya questioned the anger, saying the poverty shouldn't be hidden, "we can show the infrastructure with the poverty," the beautiful bridge with the city's ugly underside.

[7] TRADITIONAL MEDIA'S BURDEN. If the "offensive" photos were published by an individual or news site without the standards and processes of Rappler, they would've been barely noticed.

Traditional media, even if totally or partly transported to the digital platform, still carry the burden of journalism standards and ethics. They have editors and reporters. They have procedures of editing and gatekeeping. They are run by journalists. Blogger Mocha Uson, when cited at a Senate hearing for alleged falsehood and inaccuracies, cried out, "I'm not a journalist!"

Rappler, branded by government as anti-government, has a heavier burden: it must act, and be perceived to be acting, in accordance with the universal rules of fairness and accuracy, despite the alleged assaults against it.