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The Malpractice

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NOTHING BUT minutes of meetings.

So damned a grizzled local journalist of the stories – he would not call them news – appearing in the today’s papers.

So much advances in media technology. So much retardation in journalistic quality, syntax and grammar mangled, peg and context unheard, ethics perverted. And he went on to reminisce of the good old days in local journalism, ending: So, why don’t you write about it?

I thought I already did. But a click in my PC revealed:

IS IT the times, or it’s just me?

This feeling of being so Jurassic amid the current practice of journalism in the province, the subject of a recent coffee talk with a small group of impressionable college writers.

Bred in, if not born into, the web, the kids needed not a few repetition and re-illustration of the “old” way we gathered facts – interviews, on-spot coverage, clandestine meetings; we wrote the news – pen-on-paper, typewriter; and we sent stories – press collect call, courier service, via Philippine Rabbit Bus Line for photos with the negatives – to the editorial desks.

With communication lines routinely going static, we had to learn the spoken phonetic alphabet, especially with the names of suspects and their victims in crime stories. Many times, this spelled the difference between a simple erratum and a case of libel.

So how did we spell over the phone the name of some suspected rapist listed in the police blotter, such as one, fictional now, Zbigniew Levinski? Zulu-Bravo-India-Golf- November-India-Echo-Whiskey – Zbigniew. Lima-Echo-Victor-India-November-Sierra-Kilo- India – Levinski.

Imagine the phone lines going awry and poor correspondent me having to spell phonetically just about every name of persons and organizations, not to mention not-easily-discernible words in my story!

Pity more the poor deskman taking my story – phone cradled between neck and shoulder, patiently listening to my every word while clacking on his typewriter.

Yes, stiff necks – even “multi-level cervical spondylosis radiculopathy with kyphosis,” more commonly known as a pinched nerve was a common ailment of deskmen, long before it was appropriated for a former President.

Snopake

The fax coming into being vastly improved the facility of sending stories from the field to the desk, greatly relieving deskmen of their neck pains. But the fax spawned what has been derided as “Snopake journalism.”

Snopake is a brand of correction fluid.

A what?

So, I had to tell my young audience that before the coming of the PCs, our word processors were called typewriters. Where we can easily delete errors in our laptops and netbooks now, then we had to apply correction fluid on our typewriting paper to cover up errors in text. Blow on it to dry and then type the correction over it.

Snopake journalism works this way: After faxing his story to his desk, a newsman passes it to a peer who simply “snopakes” the original addressee and the name of the original author, types over it the name of his own deskman and his by-line, and then faxes the story as his very own.

Many a time one story appeared verbatim in a number of publications differentiated only by the by-lines each carried. A clear case of consensual plagiarism there.

This perversion of journalism later mutated, in adaptation to the web: E-mailed press releases, whether from government offices or business firms, are not even re-encoded but simply copy-pasted with the by-lines of reporters and forwarded to their respective – but now less respectable – papers.

Indeed perverted, aye, debauched in contemporary practice are the much-hallowed ways of olden days of enterprise journalism, interpretative reporting, and multiple coverage.

Coverage

In our time, multiple coverage was done this way: A single event is covered by a number of us newsmen, each carrying two or more publications plus the wire services, thus: Sonny Lopez of Malaya and United Press International; Elmer Cato of Manila Chronicle and Agence France-Presse; Jay Sangil of Philippine Daily Inquirer and Kyodo; Arnel San Pedro of Masa and Reuters; and me with People’s Journal, People’s Tonight and Associated Press. These aside from our local publications The Voice, Pampanga Newsweek and The Angeles Sun.

Thus, a single event would be carried by more publications and the wires than the number of newsmen who covered it. Here our efforts were maximized, the results multiplied.

Today, multiple coverage means just the opposite: A single event is covered by a number of newsmen representing the same media entities, thus: seven, the editor included, from one daily; 15, the janitor not excluded, from one radio station, etcetera.

Thus, the number of newspaper and radio stations publicizing the event is much, much lesser than the number of media workers who covered it.

The beat – or place of assignment – of a newsman is an exclusive domain which should not be encroached in by other newsmen belonging to the same media outlet. For example, one assigned to cover Angeles City has no business covering the Capitol, unless otherwise requested or instructed by his desk.

The beat boundaries so well defined – and respected – in the past are all too hazy, too porous now, resulting to an open, free-for-all coverage of the province.

Where before the number of newsmen in a coverage was dictated by the impact of the event, by its newsworthiness, now it is determined by the beneficence – and conversely, the miserliness – of the event’s principal. Hence, “atin keni” (there is) drawing just about everybody like bees to honey; “ala karin” (there’s none) avoiding that somebody like the plague.

Enterprising

Which inevitably leads to the corruption of the nobility of enterprise journalism.

Enterprise journalism goes beyond, indeed outside, the realm of press releases and media conferences.

It engages in investigation – hence its other incarnation as investigative reporting, in research and in-depth analyses, in diggings – thus its being tagged as muckraking.

Enterprise journalism does not merely report events but takes to light the forces that effect, that shape those events. Enterprise journalism is best paradigmed in the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism A number of the enterprise stories I filed in my time included: Central Luzon: the next war zone; Death knell for the Huk Movement; Fiesta time, killing time; Reds join ‘cola wars’; Requiem for a River; Clark: A Field of Dreams, among many others.

Enterprise journalism in Pampanga today is so debased as to engage in more search than research, less in dogged investigation than in dogging the most charitable newsmakers, its intended end not an earth-shaking scoop but a swoop – and the inevitable sweep of the pockets of the preyed upon subject.

Yes, what makes the enterprising journalist in Pampanga today is not the number of screaming headlines and front page multi-part series bearing his by-line. It is the number and thickness of white envelopes that centripetally come into his orbit.

And then, there is interpretative reporting. Basically, as The Sunday New York Times editor Lester Markel defined, as “reporting news depth and with care, news refreshed with background materials to make it comprehensive and meaningful… It is objective judgment based on background knowledge of a situation or appraisal of an event which are essential parts of news.”

A certain level of expertise is expected of a reporter doing interpretative reporting as this requires relevant historical background, interviews of advocates as well as adversaries, and the writer’s own informed opinion on the causes and possible consequences of the subject he is dealing with.

In current malpractice, interpretative reporting simply means the newsman giving his free interpretation, usually based on uninformed opinion, of the words and action of the news principal.

Thus, when Senator Lito Lapid filed a bill mandating free legal assistance to indigents, one paper bannered: “Lapid passes free legal aid law.”

Or when the good archbishop said he would not make any statements on the case of an errant priest, it being already under legal process and the accused well represented by a lawyer, came the report of the prelate issuing a gag order on the case.

Or when the governor met with the provincial medical personnel to address the 20 cases of loose bowel movement in the flooded towns of Pampanga, out came the headline: “Gov prevents diarrhea outbreak.”

Yes, I am of the mind that the body of journalism in Pampanga is diarrheal in irrelevancies and mediocrities, idiosyncrasies, and even outright idiocies. But like a pig in its sty, I’ve come to relish wallowing in the filth. Else, why am I still here?

(Zona Libre, Nov. 8, 2011 reprint)

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