Fri, 22 Sep 2023

JEERS TO some primetime news broadcasts for airing incomplete reports on an infant's death in Cainta, Rizal, that merely parroted claims by police sources and pursued the drug angle without fact-checking important details and providing context. The crime was the perfect sensational story to hype, with the newscasts leading with it to bait audiences.

What's the Story?

Newscasts aired reports of the incident on May 16 and 17. According to the reports, the victim's mother had entrusted the infant to the care of the suspect, whom she considered a family member, because she had to work. Police said the suspect's intention was to bathe the baby with warm water but doused the baby instead with hot water.

What the Reports Got Wrong?

Of the three newscasts we monitored, TV Patrol's proved to be the most problematic. After airing on May 16 what TV Patrol labeled as an exclusive report, anchor Henry Omaga Diaz asked the field reporter if the suspect had a history of drug use. The reporter responded that he, in fact, asked that question earlier but the victim's mother and the police said they "have not yet considered the suspect to be a drug user since they never saw him doing so."

24 Oras and Frontline Pilipinas also reported the incident on May 16 and 17, respectively. Both reports differed from TV Patrol's as the police said there had been a "confession from the suspect" that he was "under the influence of drugs that time."

24 Oras' police source concluded that "based on [his] background, the suspect is an addict." Meanwhile, Frontline Pilipinas said the suspect had admitted to using illegal drugs and that he committed the crime because, according to the report, he felt aggravated by the baby's incessant crying. The suspect also said he had been hungry at the moment the incident happened. "I was confused," he said in Filipino. "I was hungry. I didn't know what to do."

Based on the statement by the suspect to Frontline Pilipinas, the effects of hunger may have been just as compelling a reason for the suspect to commit the crime. But the TV Patrol's Omaga-Diaz jumped on the drug angle although it was not brought up by the reporter. 24 Oras and Frontline Pilipinas also latched onto the drug angle on the mere say-so of police sources, even if the suspect offered possible explanations - hunger and confusion, which suggests mental health issues - for his action.

What Could Have Been Done?

All the reports merely aired the police's statements and, given the horrific nature of the crime, did not include any psychological assessment to explain the suspect's state of mind or any relevant evidence to confirm the initial assumption of drug use. There were no clarifications as to how the police concluded that the suspect is an "addict" and exactly what they meant when they cited the suspect's "background."

Even as they went to town with the drug angle, none of the reports explored the relationship between drug use and criminality, by perhaps interviewing professionals who deal with the impact of drug use. None of the reports presented the incident as a possible mental-health issue, even as the suspect admitted that he got "confused" and that his mind, according to the Frontline Pilipinas report, went blank. The report itself constituted the man's trial by publicity.

Why Is this Important?

Unimaginable crimes such as this cry out for immediate investigation of the facts before these are publicized. It is the kind of crime that heightens the tendency for the media to resort to speculative reporting, which reporters should avoid. Worse, the media rely only on police sources.

But this is precisely the kind of story that underscores the important role of journalists as agents of verification. They are trained to restrain their impulse to jump to conclusions. The lack of restraint was most obvious in this case.

Beyond failing to be accurate and complete, the reports cited here reflect an all-too common problem in Philippine journalism: bias against people who use drugs as well as ignorance about drug use and its complexities. It is a bias that worsens the stigmatization of people who use drugs as criminals, without understanding the social, psychological and medical aspects of drug use, especially among the poor.

This bias grounded the "drug war" narrative of former President Rodrigo Duterte that made it easy for communities to accept the brutal campaign that has killed thousands of mostly poor Filipinos.

Human rights groups and advocates of a humane and public-health approach to illegal drugs have been grappling with this media bias for years. They recognize that the media's role in the misinformation surrounding drug use worsens the stigmatization of people who use drugs, making them easy targets for abuse by police, local government officials, and their own communities.

Help is available.

In April, some of these rights groups launched a "media tool kit" on drug reporting, a landmark document that they hope would change how people who use drugs are depicted in the media. The media toolkit published by the Drug Policy Reform Initiative can be downloaded here.

Substance Abuse Helpline 1550 is a project of the Department of Health and the Office of the President. You may contact them Mondays to Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to receive free and confidential services, including information on treatment services available, referral to relevant health facilities, and brief psychosocial intervention from counselors.

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