by the late Isagani M. Yambot, read by Sandy Prieto-Romualdez during the PPI’s 16th National Press Forum, April 23
THERE IS NO DOUBT that in this Age of News and Information, the media is a very powerful institution. In a democracy, the free media plays a very important role in promoting and protecting the public interest. Traditionally the media has taken an adversarial stance toward government and plays a watchdog role as the public’s representative.
American columnist and educator Georgie Anne Geyer said that today the press (the older term for the media) ``is judge and jury, prosecutor and inquisit[or], new reverend and Mother Superior.’’ She recalled that US Librarian of Congress Jamese Billington told her one day: ``The media has replaced the church. It now provides the value mediators for people’s lives. It is the validator of politics. It is where the power is. It is a kind of spiritual power, together with corrosive cynicism.’’
Still sustaining the comparison of the media to the church, Eugene McCarthy said that journalism is becoming no less than the New Religion, complete with inquisitions and infallibility. He said: `` Media power now is acknowledged to have moved beyond the Index to the Inquisition, whereby the media decide who is to be sustained, who is to be rejected, who is to live and die in the public eye.’’
These commentators were talking about the media in the United States and other western countries, but they might as well have been talking about the media in the Philippines. The media also exert a lot of influence in the Philippines. The media can raise some people to heights of power and popularity, or they can bring them down to the mud of ignominy and shame.
The media is the champion of the public interest and public trust; it is a watchdog on government; it is the protector of democracy and the rights that flourish in a democratic society. But, as Juvenal said in his ``Satires’’: ``Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?) ‘’ To whom will the media be accountable?
An institution that wields so much power must be accountable to some greater institution. ``If we are to pretend to speak in the name of the people as their representatives, we will have to offer the people some proof of our honor beyond what we have,’’ Geyer said. Another journalist, Michelle Salomon, said that ``for the public to know that media acts in the public interest, it must be (voluntarily) accountable to its public. But for media to be accountable, it must be also seen to be accountable, or it becomes meaningless.’’
Media commissions and councils all over the world have called for greater media accountability and ethics in the past 50 years. In 2005, French media ethicist Claude-Jean Bertrand said: `As I studied media ethics off and on for about 20 years…it became evident to me that the survival of mankind is predicated on the generalization of democracy; that no democracy can exist without press freedom; and that press freedom cannot survive if media are unethical.’’
There are two often cited models of media accountability that are seen to work effectively, but some commentators have said that both are ``imperfect and problematic.’’ The first model is the ``economic marketplace,’’ which, based loosely on John Milton’s notion of truth prevailing over falsehood [in Aeropagitica: ``Truth will win out’’], says that irresponsible media would not meet the test of the market and instead turn the public against it.
The other model is the path of litigation: the filing of libel cases, damage suits and similar cases that would seek to impose the penalty of imprisonment or heavy fines, or both, on those who would use the power of the press to damage reputations.
It has also been suggested that citizens’ groups such as voluntary press councils and fair trial-free press committees critique the press. This model was tried in some places in the United States, but it enjoyed limited success and benefitted only a few people. One other way is to appoint media ombudsmen, readers’ advocates or readers’ editors, but they are small in number in the United States, and even fewer in the Philippines.
For many decades now, social responsibility has been a watchword for the media. Recently, the word ``accountability’’ has been added to discussions of the practice of journalism. But all affected sectors have agreed that mandatory controls to enforce media accountability are not appropriate, not acceptable and not workable, and that other processes and methods of self-regulation would be more acceptable.
Two methods or venues of criticism are the press council and the code of ethics. The Philippines, and specifically the Philippine Press Institute, has both. The Philippine Press Council operates under its auspices and for starters, is trying to enforce the rule of fairness among the PPI members. The PPI has also adopted a Code of Ethics for Filipino Journalists and it is the ``bible’’ of all its members. In the Philippine Daily Inquirer no applicant can become an employee of the Editorial Department unless he or she first subscribes to the Code of Ethics. Violations of the Code of Ethics are punishable under the Inquirer’s Code of Discipline.
Aside from the Code of Ethics, the Inquirer has a set of Canons of Taste for Journalists and a Manual of Editorial Policies which lays down ethical guidelines in dealing with cases involving the professional conduct of the members of the Editorial Department. All these are intended to make the journalists working in the Inquirer accountable to the public.
Everette Dennis of Columbia University says that codes of ethics written by professional societies or editors’ associations are general philosophical statements that promote impartiality, fair play and decency. Codes written by individual media organizations are more specific and more detailed. They are generally intended for internal use and are not distributed to the public and not widely publicized.
Press councils are more public, but not many complaints are filed with them. Probably because not many people know about them. Or probably other people prefer to take the litigation route. Others resort to other, more deadly means, and thus there have been many cases of journalists being killed, some of them because they incurred the wrath of people who felt that their honor and reputation had been besmirched.
Codes of ethics, rigorously enforced, and press councils, more widely publicized, can be useful instruments of criticism as well as venues for the resolution of complaints against the media. They can be used to exact a greater degree of accountability from the media.
The media, particularly in democracies, are very powerful. But with great power goes a great degree of social responsibility and accountability. The media, to continue to enjoy the trust of the public, must be frank and transparent and open to criticism and it should be willing to submit itself to the same level of scrutiny that it subjects people and institutions to.