“The biased media” is such a common buzz phrase used for those critical of mainstream media’s coverage of social and political issues. Filipinos are no strangers to this as news outlets have long faced allegations of unfair reporting, especially from those in government. Former President Benigno Aquino III thought news coverage in his time was too negative and asked journalists to be more balanced in their writing. Former President Joseph Estrada and President Rodrigo Duterte were more direct, hitting news networks for supposed bias.

This kind of attitude toward the media may stem from the belief that news reports should take a neutral tone and always present “both sides” of a story. However, this illusory goal was never ideal in the first place, and with the recent political trends, it is hardly desirable now.

View from nowhere?

Neutrality in itself is actually problematic. To maintain a semblance of being neutral, one must avoid favoring any side of a story, therefore avoiding judgment of the merits of each, leading a journalist to create a false balance between them—this is the media bias known as “bothsidesism”.

This is why Danilo Arao, a professor at the Department of Journalism at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), asserts that there is no such thing as neutral observation. “Neutrality is a myth,” he proclaims.

Arao says that journalism naturally stands against wrongdoings, having a “critical and adversarial nature” that puts reporters in a position to speak truth to power when needed. “Even if this sounds nebulous, journalistic outputs are inherently biased for the truth. Journalists are therefore expected to use as sources of information the experts instead of ‘fake news’ peddlers,” he maintains.

In other words, neutrality is not a characteristic of what makes journalistic writing acceptable. On the contrary, some may even argue that its absence is. After all, there has only really ever been one ultimate standard for commendable journalism—truth.

Arao further emboldens the ethical human in the journalist, saying, “A journalist’s heart should be in the right place…shaping public opinion by providing the relevant information. Through his or her reports, a journalist produces a critical audience, not a passive one.”

Turning the tides

In the United States (US), the newsroom obsession over neutrality fueled a counter-movement among young reporters. And in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last June, “moral clarity”—a concept put forward by former Washington Post correspondent Wesley Lowery—then filled in the need for a new way of reporting and subsequently gained widespread public attention, as reporters strived to change the “soft” framing of stories on racial injustice.

While Lowery was not explicitly clear on his definition of the term, Dr. Ma. Diosa Labiste, Arao’s colleague at UPD, interprets moral clarity as “the exercise of judgment in reporting, that in the face of racial discrimination and violence, you take a position and provide voices to the victims.” At the core of it all, journalists are given a duty to oppose oppression.

And although the above principle was born in the context of racism in the US, there seems to be no reason to restrict it to the American experience. Though Labiste asserts that journalism norms are bound by the social environment, that is all the more reason to bring the practice of moral clarity to the Philippines. With civil liberties under strain, the press has both the right and the duty to stand against the oppressive actions of those in power. 

As Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, simply puts it, “We don’t need to second-guess blindingly obvious realities on the basis of absolutist commitment to ‘balanced’ journalism. We do it when the facts demand it.”

The importance of the media in such cases, especially in resisting injustice, is an idea that Labiste also holds. It has never been just a practice of relaying facts; only by abandoning the delusion of neutrality can journalism stay true to its role as a seeker of accountability.

“A courageous journalism is one that takes sides,” Labiste asserts.

By Jan Emmanuel Alonzo

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