Seares: Pagasa’s complaint on story about its storm forecasts

A DEC. 1, 2014 story in a national broadsheet headlined “Pagasa ill-equipped for storm forecasts” dismayed, if not angered, the state weather bureau.

Its complaints: 1) the story was “outdated, wrong, misleading”; and 2) the title or head “didn’t give full justice” to the COA report which, it said, even lauded initiatives of Pagasa and project Noah in improving the agency’s services.

The lapse apparently is the use of a year-old report document with no accompanying

facts at the time of writing.

The COA report contained findings in December 2013, a month or so after Yolanda struck and devastated some parts of the country.

Relying on document

Mahar Lagmay, Project Noah executive director, said “everything they (COA) have

written as suggestions is already being done by Pagasa and Project Noah.”

Total reliance on documents may lead to gaps like that in the COA audit story. The story was accurate but only in regard to its 2013 findings; the paper can stand by its correctness on that. But the story was far from complete. There was a yawning hole, which should have been filled since the document was already outdated.

More of an omission but still a deficiency that hurt the agency concerned.

Failures like that occur because some journalists lose caution and relax their guard once they’re convinced the document is genuine.

‘Red flag’

They don’t check facts in the document against facts on the ground. The date of the report should’ve been the “red flag” in a routine inquiry.

Sometime ago, a Sun.Star editor asked a reporter who filed a story of a court case in which one party made in a motion a serious allegation against the rival litigant.

Checking the document and noticing the date, the editor asked the reporter to verify from court records if the judge already ruled on the motion. And indeed the judge did: he had denied the motion.

Caution saved the paper from what would’ve been an embarrassing situation. The gap was noticed even in the rush of deadline, which incidentally is the usual refuge of the lazy or careless.

Not all lawyers are scrupulous. Only a few care what they’d get reporters and their news outlets into. Sometimes, a news source feeds a document that’s already superseded by a succeeding document or he gives an incomplete document. One time, the reporter was stunned when an editor pointed out that a crucial page of a court ruling was missing. The lawyer or a competing reporter must have removed it.

‘Unjust’ headline

Pagasa’s complaint about the title or head is valid: Noah’s Lagmay apparently knows that many news readers are headline scanners. Not everyone reads the story up to the last paragraph.

Headline writers tend to focus only on the main core of the story, which usually is the part that criticizes or condemns. Limited space disables the writer from putting too much information in the title or head, a handicap that’s less severe in online journalism.

A headline writer who’s sensitive to the side of the person or agency that is criticized or condemned puts a “balancing” information in the blurb or teaser. Most stories, however, don’t have blurbs or teasers.

Relief

The next best thing to printing Pagasa’s comment along with the COA findings is to put high up in the story the “qualifier” that the COA report was old and the present situation wasn’t available.

Too much of a bother? Maybe, but that’s supposed to be part of the job.

Once the story is printed or posted and the harm done, Pag-asa could get relief in a “correction” letter or note, a follow-up clarification story, or a media-watch piece online, which was what Rappler did on the weather bureau’s gripe.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com]

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