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Opinion: Public Discourse in the Midst of Disinformation

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

By Atty. Odina E. Batnag



In this post-truth era where faith seems to matter more than facts, what is the value of the news media? Do people still want verified, fact-based news?


The 2022 Digital News Report of the Reuters Institute for Journalism found that in the Philippines, almost half—47%—of those surveyed “often or sometimes avoid the news.” Reuters reports that if those who occasionally avoid the news are included, the figure for news avoidance goes up to 75%.


Only about half of those surveyed—55%—are interested in news. More than half of those who avoid the news say they were put off by too much news, citing too much focus on, among others, politics and the Coronavirus. Curiously, the survey was conducted between January 18 and February 2 this year, when among the most important issues revolved on politics and health: parts of the country were in lockdown due to a high number of COVID cases, and it was three months before the May 9 presidential elections.


In the past few decades, mainstream media—television and radio stations, and newspapers—provided us with news, that in turn formed our shared version of reality. We could not turn away from it, because there was a general consensus that the world was as the news media presented it to be; the discussions took place in the box that the media defined. Often, the media also defined the agenda – as the major source of information, it had the power to say what was important and what was not; what was not reported was often ignored.





For the past six years, however, the news media has been under attack, mostly on two fronts: its credibility, and its platforms. For the broadcast media, the attack was on its license, as was the experience of the former broadcast giant ABS-CBN. For the print and online news media, which required no license to publish, the attack was on its news websites in the form of DDoS attacks, and against its reporters. Rappler, an online news site, was for a time restricted from covering the President. Members of the alternative press, who focus on community issues and the marginalized sectors, were accused of being nothing more than fronts for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).


The attacks were consistent, and exploited weaknesses of the news media – the corruption of some, that allowed the publication of stories that were basically rehashed press releases; the bias of others, that allowed one-sided views to be broadcast and published, to the detriment of the other side; the arrogance of still others, who used the power of the press as a bully pulpit, masking their bias as advocacy and their arrogance as passion for the truth.


Nowadays the news media is only one of many sources of information: the Reuters study says as much as 73% of Filipinos get their news from Facebook. As much as 15% get their news from TikTok, an app for posting and watching 15-second videos.


Moreover, many no longer see the news media as a dispenser of truth. The Reuters report shows that many Filipinos no longer trust the news media: only about 37% of Filipinos believe they can trust the news most of the time, which figure is below the global average of 42%. This year’s trust score is actually an improvement from the 27% trust score in 2020, when the Philippines was first included in the study.


Though trust in the news media went up by five percentage points from 2021, trust scores went down across news brands: by as much as five percentage points for ABS-CBN and TV5, and four percentage points for GMA Network, Philippine Star, and local newspapers.






The Reuters survey found that only one-fourth of Filipinos believe that Philippine media is truly free; about one-third of the respondents actually question news organization’s independence from undue political and business interests. Many Filipinos simply don’t believe that the news media has the public’s interest at heart. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents say that “almost or most news organizations put commercial interests first”; another 34% say it was political interests.


Correlated to the news avoidance and the loss of trust in news brands is the growing dependence on social media for news, because a lot of misinformation is spread through social media. News websites are responsible for their posts and may be sued for cyber libel, but not social media platforms, though there have been efforts to fact-check for misinformation. The algorithm in Facebook, the most widely used social media platform in the Philippines, directs users to see posts based on their preferences, creating an echo chamber. While a newspaper—or even a radio or television broadcast—usually exposes us to other news and different views, social media platforms redirect us to a rabbit hole where everyone thinks as we do, further reaffirming and strengthening our beliefs, regardless of the facts.


It is often said that the right to information is vital to a functioning democracy, because people need to have access to information that will allow them to make better choices to govern their lives. But what if people are choosing disinformation or information, lies over truth? What is the value of a free press when people would rather listen to or watch social influencers that do not even pretend to follow the basic journalism rules of fact checking and objectivity?


In 1972, when Martial Law was imposed, Marcos Sr. shut down what was at the time considered Asia’s freest press. The news media that later reopened were but a shadow of their former selves, but a mosquito press took up the challenge of digging out the facts that the Marcos regime wanted hidden. Now, as Marcos Jr. comes to power, there may be no more need to shut down the press. Few people trust the media, and even fewer want to read the news that they put out. What value is there in news, when no one wants to read the news?


But the value of news, and of the news media, is based on their function of truth-telling, of remembering, of documenting events as historians and the rest of society debate on the importance of these events. It is us who are imperiled when we choose to ignore facts.


If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, did it really fall? used to be a question on how dependent our reality is on our senses. But if a tree falls in the forest and we refuse to hear, what will happen to the forest? And what will happen to us, if it turns out it was falling on us? ###




Odina E. Batnag is a senior journalist and a lawyer. For more than 20 years she was the Manila bureau reporter of Jiji Press, a Japanese news agency. She honed her skills as a writer and an investigative journalist working for the local media: The Manila Times, the Philippine Graphic, and The Manila Chronicle, where she worked for a total of 11 years before joining the foreign press in 1997.


She is currently working in the Commission of Human Rights of the Philippines.


 

This article is part of the August 2022 issue of The Mediator. Email us at admin@mediatorsnetwork.com for regular subscription.


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