Wed, 27 May 2020

CMFR File Photo

FEBRUARY 12, the official start of the 2019 campaign, pushed into high gear medias coverage of the May 19 midterm elections. But there was little that actually helped the electorate to decide who best deserve their votes. Mid-term elections are a challenge. The absence of a presidential candidate seems to leave the media with little to do other than stick to the campaign trail and pick up rules and regulations issued by agencies.

With a roster of 62 candidates vying for a place in the Senate, media coverage loses focus, seemingly oblivious to the excitement of new faces and personalities who could if given the chance infuse Congress with renewed commitment to public service.

CMFRs review of reports so far reveals that the media are covering this electoral period in the same way they have done in the past, sticking to the campaign trail and the list of election regulations — with little or no relevant information to help the electorate decide who best deserve its votes.

CMFR monitored the reporting on the campaign for the May elections of the primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2s TV Patrol, GMA-7s 24 Oras, TV5s Aksyon and CNN Philippines News Night), and the leading Manila broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin) from the start of the campaign period on February 12 to March 12.

Following candidates during their campaign sorties, media highlighted the lines dividing administration and opposition slates, picking up points made on one side or the other.

Reports also turned to government agencies involved in the elections for news. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) was a frequent subject as it announced its preparation for the ballot in May and its crackdown on violators of campaign rules. The Land Transportation Regulatory Board (LTFRB) got media attention when it issued its rules for posting campaign materials on public transport vehicles. Articles passed on the briefing of the Philippine National Police (PNP) on the gun ban and its prohibition of police escorts for candidates.

Overall, however, there was little space and time given to current issues of concern and the positions taken by candidates on such problems as inflation and unemployment, among others.

Still, the news from the different political camps carried through media as sound bytes or quotable quotes made interesting copy. Politicians openly expressing themselves reveal character and values, or the lack of such. Media pick these up, adding color and conflict to election reports.


Covered widely, electoral matters gained an average of three reports each day on broadcast media. But the subject did not dominate the newscasts. On average, the primetime news programs allotted 13.15 percent of airtime to the coverage of the campaign for Senate seats. Aksyon allotted the most airtime at 22.30 percent; followed by News Night at 14.50 percent; TV Patrol, 14.32 percent; and 24 Oras 7.16 percent.


TV Coverage Fixed on Campaign Logs

As in the 2016 polls, media simply followed the schedules of different candidates.

Closely following the campaign trail, they chronicled what transpired in the sorties of candidates in various locations. The routine reports highlighted sound bytes from candidates, campaign managers, calling attention to campaign gimmicks, celebrity endorsers. The coverage of the campaign kick-off on February 12 regaled the electorate with performances in song and dance as though candidates were vying for top prize in Pilipinas Got Talent.

Airtime for Controversies

Newscasts picked up controversies that hounded certain senatorial candidates. These included verbal tussles and clear cases of foot-in-the-mouth infection. Among the most reported was the dismissal remark made by Sara Duterte on the importance of honesty in politics. Speaking with the media in an ambush interview on March 6, Sara Duterte said that all candidates lie and honesty is not an issue in the elections.

The incumbent mayor of Davao City and presidential daughter groomed as Dutertes heir apparent, Sara founded and heads Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), a party created for administration candidates. Sara quickly spoke in defense of Imee Marcos, whose campaign claim to have graduated from the Princeton University, the UP College of Law and the Asian Institute of Management had been roundly denied by the three institutions.She said, "Walang isang kandidato diyan na hindi nagsisinungaling, kaya hindi dapat nagiging issue ang honesty ngayon."

Media also reported on the presidents controversial narco-list, noting the timing of its release. From the opposition, Rep. Gary Alejanos alleged the use of government funds for campaign shirts of HNP candidate Christopher Bong Go. Unfortunately, on either one, no reporter ventured to investigate the basis of the allegations.


Cockfight Coverage

Election is competition, so the horse-race has served as a metaphor for how the media report on this political process. In the Philippines, it is also a cockfight, as the press pits one party against another, or individual candidates who charge up the contest with different takes on issues.

Most reports on TV did not deviate from this orientation, looking at two sides and seeing them in black and white, as though there were no middle ground. Debates can actually draw out some common ground. What happens then, when a party refuses the occasion to debate.

Media resorted to the traditional practice of presenting the two sides, tracked the challenge of OtsoDiretso, the opposition slate, to debate with HNP. Reports went back and forth between the two sides, neglecting to draw into the exchange non-partisan views about the importance of debate to prove the worthiness of candidates as the debate forces them to develop their position on issues. Sadly, despite the claim of some administration candidates that their party was willing to debate, not a single HNP candidate showed up at Plaza Miranda on February 25, the 33rd anniversary of EDSA 1986.

Still the media stayed with the game of pitting personalities/parties against each other, in the time-honored practice of two-sideism.

HNP and OtsoDiretso candidates were the main subjects of reports, sidelining lesser known candidates vying for a seat in the Senate. Not enough airtime was devoted to backgrounders, bios and briefs about the accomplishments or lack of such of candidates. No descriptions of party platforms, bills promised upon ones election, views on significant issues, including as necessary the involvement of candidates in scandal or anomaly.

Only Aksyon had a running special feature on the senatorial candidates highlighting their stand on certain issues as well as reviewing their platforms. The Aksyon special feature summarized the candidates interviews with Luchi Cruz Valdez on another TV5 program, Aplikante sa Senado. The program featured one senatorial candidate per day.

So far, it had presented backgrounders on 23 senatoriables.


Like TV, prints election coverage was a smaller share of the news hole, 5.96 percent. Star had the most number of election-related reports in print at 104 (7.22 percent), 35 of which appeared on the frontpage, with ten as banner stories. The Inquirer had 77 (6.11 percent) reports; 16 were on the frontpage, and nine banner stories. The Bulletin had 62 (4.49 percent), with 21 frontpage stories, and six banner stories.



Regulation of Elections

Print led with its coverage of election rules and regulations. It gave the most coverage to the guidelines, instructions and rules issued by governing bodies: Comelecs crackdown on the use of illegal campaign materials, campaign spending and PNPs prohibition on police working as bodyguards and the use of PNP vehicles on the hustings.

The three newspapers monitored published a total of 75 reports on this subject. Forty-three of these 75 stories were in the Star. The Inquirer reported more on the campaign trail (21 reports). The Bulletin published stories that looked like press releases (20).

Public knowledge of these can help the voters note which candidates violated these rules more than others.


Print Going Puff

Efforts to keep certain candidates in the public mind were obvious as stories of doubtful news value gained space in print. These puff pieces boosted the publicity mileage of some senatorial candidates. These are PR pieces, generated by campaign offices. Some have news value, but the press tends to publish these indiscriminately.

All three newspapers published stories about a certain candidates stand on certain issues or their social activities. The Bulletin had 20 stories of this nature. The Star had 18; the Inquirer, 11.

This practice is not new. In the book News For Sale, Chay Hofilea wrote that In the 2004 elections, as in 1992 and 1998, editors, reporters, and columnists acted as agents selling column inches in broadsheets and tabloids to the media strategists of candidates. Payoffs to editors and columnists are made to assure that pieces about certain candidates are published to keep their names fresh in the public memory. (See monitor: Keeping Go in the Public Mind) The practice seems to have gained ground and may now be established in campaign spending and as a revenue stream for media organizations/practitioners.

The monitor period showed administration candidate, Christopher Bong Go, getting the most publicity in print during the monitor period, with 15 news reports. Eight were published by Star. Bong Go, relatively unknown in the national political scene, gained prominence when he served as a Special Assistant to the President (SAP).

Francis Tolentino is in second place. As neither one holds any post, media attention given to them should be noted. Go resigned when he declared himself a candidate; although he has been frequently photographed still at the presidents side or cited as a source of presidential news by the media, as in the recent visit of the president, Ms. Avancena and their daughter Kitty to Hong Kong. Tolentino, former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman, was appointed as the presidents political adviser in 2017, a low profile position, but may have been designed as a prelude to his candidacy. Other candidates accommodated with puff stories include Sonny Angara and Imee Marcos (see graph). Some local government candidates in Metro Manila also shared the media publicity.

Media as Kingmaker

Medias crucial role as watchdog is heightened during elections. Not only must they raise the level of political discourse; they must also serve as the voice of the people and raise issues that politicians need to address. With the exception of a few stories, the reportage in the first month of the election campaign period for the Senate did not live up to this responsibility.

Medias fixation on the campaign trail seems more attuned to the needs of the candidates rather the citizens, its role of watchdog of power turned on its head. The protection of the press is premised on its ability, capacity and commitment to providing news that help voters understand the worthiness of those seeking their support. It is not to help the candidates they favor win on May 9.

Exclusivity in Debates: Relevant Points Wasted

COMELEC HAS rejected OtsoDiretsos request for a sponsored debate. This is unfortunate, as debates give less prominent candidates a chance to compete in a more level playing field, providing the public with a chance to view candidates interacting with one another.

In recent years, televised debates have become a staple in the coverage of national elections. Apart from the fact that television has the widest reach, its audio-visual elements enhance public attention, having the power to deliver political information and messages with greater impact. Debates also give less prominent candidates with fewer resources a chance to compete in a more level playing field. The unified effort to hold and cover debates which everyone watches all at the same time consolidates the power and impact of exposure of deserving candidates.

The three TV networks (Harapan 2019: The ABS-CBN Senatorial Town Hall Debate, CNN Philippines' The Filipino Votes: Senatorial Forum, Debate 2019: The GMA Senatorial Faceoff) have done their part to fill this huge gap. But hosting their own senatorial debates or forums, the rivalry among competitors limits the exposure of their programs.

Network wars get in the way of greater public information. The news that emanates from these forums are ignored by competing stations, retaining the practice of not referring to any news that comes from another news organization. This practice results in disjointed public perception, as programs do not connect to the entire field of news.

Election season demands media unity in order to fulfill its mandate of helping the public understand public issues so citizens can vote wisely. Pooled resources and collaborative efforts are needed to reach the widest possible demographic.

Comelecs decision is a disservice to the electorate. And network wars that ignore the news from rival programs defeat the imperative of providing the electorate the information it needs to make wise choices.

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