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Behind closed doors: The impact of reporting sensitive cases

Effective journalism has continuously provided information across the nation, delivering the most recent news to broaden public knowledge on national and global issues. Not only does it have to function around-the-clock, but journalism and the practitioners involved also assume a great responsibility to cautiously present data in an ethical manner, especially if the topics at hand can be considered more sensitive than most.

Learning from the past

One of the most controversial incidents that served as a wake-up call for media practitioners was the 2010 Luneta hostage crisis. Twenty-five passengers were held hostage on a tourist bus for 11 hours by former Philippine National Police officer Rolando Mendoza. The standoff concluded with the unfortunate death of eight Hong Kong nationals and the hostage-taker himself. Though several sectors share the blame for the botched rescue operation, the local media undoubtedly played a role in the crisis’s escalation.

Radio reporters Erwin Tulfo and Michael Rogas came under fire for conducting an hour-long interview with Mendoza—an act that supposedly prevented policemen from getting in touch with him during a critical period of the crisis. Television networks like ABS-CBN, GMA, and TV-5 were also heavily criticized for airing live coverage of the hostage-taking, which Mendoza was able to view from the bus’ television. The video footage included shots of police movement outside the bus and the arrest of Mendoza’s brother, SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza. The latter angered the hostage-taker, who began shooting at passengers in retaliation.

In the aftermath of the incident, ABS-CBN, TV5, and Radyo Mo Nationwide were penalized by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) for ethics violations. As stipulated in Article 1, Section 6 of the KBP broadcast code, “the coverage of crimes in progress or crisis situations such as hostage-taking or kidnapping shall not put lives in greater danger than what is already inherent in the situation. Such coverage should be restrained and care should be taken so as not to hinder or obstruct efforts of authorities to resolve the situation.”

Inflict minimal or no harm

In light of covering sensitive cases such as the 2010 Luneta hostage crisis, Dr. Cheryll Ruth Soriano, Assistant Professor of the Communication Department, emphasizes the need to abide by a key principle of media ethics—to minimize or do no harm. “[The] media is powerful. It can create good, but it could also potentially create harm, in a sense. That’s why the accountability is still [with] the media themselves,” she asserts.

An ethics-centered mindset is necessary at all times, particularly when covering cases of a sensitive nature. Apart from hostage-taking crises, this includes rape incidents, cases involving mental illnesses, and even cases involving hazing. As Soriano explains, victims of these cases are at most risk of harm if journalists are not conscious of how they are reporting the situation at hand. “Vulnerable na nga [sila,] gagawin mo pang more vulnerable?” she continues.

(If they’re already vulnerable, why would you make them more vulnerable?)

While media practitioners are generally expected to abide by a code of ethics, they can also be kept accountable by their viewers, readers, and listeners. Recently, Rappler moved to correct its article on fraternity-related violence involving members of Sigma Rho at the University of the Philippines-Diliman after netizens called them out for wrongfully disclosing personal information without consent. Soriano views this incident as a reversal of media’s agenda-setting capability. “This shows the media that: ‘Hey, I don’t like the way you frame this issue.’ [They] can now make comments on that and that can affect the way the media might be reporting,” she expounds.

On immediacy and virality

Taking into consideration similar cases, Soriano shares different angles on how one can analyze information in the context of new media. She notes that social media has shifted the way news is disseminated. Not only does social media provide peak accessibility, but it also upholds the concept of immediacy, as news is highly time sensitive. “The immediacy of social media [compels] journalists more than ever. Journalism is always a time-sensitive kind of profession.”

In relation to immediacy, another significant detail that Soriano points out is the crucial effect of how fast information is circulated online. Addressing the Sigma Rho controversy, Rappler being called out due to questionable news delivery is, as Soriano explains, a matter of professionalism and ethics. Despite the fact that news is pressured by time, she asserts that once information is public, how it is spread is out of one’s control. “It’s [going to]
be out there. It’s [going to] be replicated. You no longer have control over it.”


With truth comes accountability

In addition, Soriano discusses the complexities of how media shapes the way people think. She highlights the impact of the public’s experience with news, acknowledging one’s limitations with regard to direct exposure. “We get exposed directly to only what we can see and what we can feel. The news media plays a role [in] filling all those major gaps [in exposure], so they have a clear responsibility,” she says.

Though the industry has become more competitive due to the influence of social media, one cannot deny that journalism and truth-seeking are still essentially inseparable. Reporters cannot treat veracity and justice as secondary to the desire to be the first to break the news to the public. At the end of the day, Soriano believes that “if you feel that your role in the world is to seek the truth, you internally make yourself accountable.”

By Sabine Cariño

By Maxine Ferrer

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