MEDIA heeds its audience.

To serve the audience better and to beat our competitors, we listen to our readers, listeners and viewers.

Why shouldn’t we listen to them now?

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

In the wake of the Aug. 23, 2010 tragedy that ended in the loss of lives, we should listen to what our communities are telling us.

We must know and observe the protocols for covering crisis situations without endangering life.

Many community leaders, such as Malacañang and the church, concur and ask media to practice self-regulation.

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III does not want to impose prior restraint or censorship to improve media’s handling of crises, Presidential Communications Operations Office head Herminio Coloma told reporters last Aug. 27, 2010.

Can we discipline ourselves?

Reining in competition

In discussing the Manila hostage-taking incident, a class of Mass Communication students at the University of the Philippines Visayas Cebu College expressed views that depended on their field experience, or lack of it, during journalism internship.

Lower-year students believed that the worst of pack journalism was exemplified when reporters rushed to interview the hostage-taker’s brother as the police were taking him into custody. The students agreed with views that the airing of the footage may have pushed the hostage-taker to commit his final acts of violence.

A senior student said that self-restraint is easy enough to defend inside the classroom. As an intern, he observed how the momentum of coverage and the drive to beat the competition can make one set aside ethics to get an exclusive or even just a story covered by one’s competitors.

Competition, in tapping journalists’ competence, experience and training, distinguishes the top performers from the shallow, trivial and mediocre. The exemplars of journalism focus community attention on a problem, reap awards and commendations, and raise circulation or audience share.

Yet, the race to be No. 1 may lead to a myopic pursuit of self-serving ends. In a crisis, such as a hostage-taking, a competitive mindset is a threat. News managers should not be leading the pack for the kill but coordinating with authorities and even delaying the broadcast of sensitive coverage until after the hostages are released.

Accepting responsibility

Community leaders point out that the media lapses committed during the Aug. 23 hostage-taking violated the guidelines formulated by media groups after a similar crisis in March 2007, when Armando “Jun” Ducat held day-care students and teachers hostage for 10 hours but later released them.

Journalism standards and ethical guidelines advocate conflict-sensitive reporting, which pursues the truth but does not escalate conflict and minimizes harm and risk to life.

Given the professionalism in many newsrooms, the conduct of media trainings and newsroom discussions, and journalism pointers accessible on the Internet, working journalists and even aspiring journalists know the basics of conflict-sensitive reporting: no live coverage, no blow-by-blow coverage of the critical negotiation phase, no dissemination of information to warn or tip off criminal elements about police plans, close coordination between the police and media, no bypassing of the police to interview the hostage-taker, no journalist volunteering as a negotiator, and no taking of footage in a crime scene before the Scene of the Crime Operatives have completed their work.

If these guidelines are known, why were all these broken last Aug. 23?

For some media observers, more worrying than the media lapses committed during the hostage-taking is the defensiveness of some journalists and media institutions in the assessment that followed the carnage.

Unless we face up to our responsibilities and account for our actions to our public/communities, “media self-regulation” will again be a major threat when we cover the next crisis.