Cebu Citizens-Press Council executive director Pachico A. Seares wrote this piece for the Philippine Journalism Review Reports May-June 2009 issue.
A community journalist looks at media corruption
By Pachico A. Seares
Are community journalists easier prey to corruption than Manila-based counterparts because those working for community papers and broadcast stations are poorly paid?
Not true, not about the meager pay but about a journalist’s fall being a necessary result of economic hardship.
Just as it’s not true that Manila-based journalists are beyond corruption because they enjoy higher salaries and more benefits.
Economic woes exact a heavy toll on journalists’ values, but corruption of media feeds not just on money problems. There are other weaknesses of the person, flaws of the industry, and society’s tolerance of graft in many sectors.
With the power of media to build or destroy public image, it’s inevitably target of corruption. Perpetual tension, if not hostility, flows between journalists and news sources. And pay-off or buy-out, if standard p.r. doesn’t work, is a ready option.
Clout of “corruptee”
Corruption reaches out with little regard for press card or news outlet’s address. What the corruptor considers is how much good or harm the “corruptee” can do: size of the medium’s clout, circulation figures, and influence over the audience.
These command higher price, bigger tong: reporters in the big papers, top-rated radio commentators, better-known and avidly-read opinion columnists.
Be it in urban center or countryside, the same motive prompts use of grease. Corruptor wants to distort the kind and flow of information: speed up good news, kill or delay bad news, or give bad news a spin in the payor’s favor.
What corruption does
Whatever the purchase or barter price, the effects are equally devastating on press functions.
Media corruption tampers with the news and debases the journalist. Entangled in its web, soon enough he casts aside public interest for the corruptor’s interest.
Clash of interests is more insidious as collusion with the payor is illicit. Breaking public trust, like sleeping with the enemy, is usually not transparent. Often the audience fails to catch on.
In pious declarations at public forums or over drinks at the bar, many journalists say they’ll defend press freedom to the death, then yield to corruption’s siren song.
What results isn’t journalism class theory but for real: The corruptee no longer impartially sifts facts or checks accuracy. He can’t tell the story as it is or give an unpolluted opinion. Corruption influences each decision the journalist makes.
Mayette Q. Tabada, who teaches Mass Com at U.P. in the Visayas Cebu College and St. Theresa’s College, worries about media corruption and how it disorients students exposed to the real world of journalism by internships and training sessions. She says novice writers’ confusion over gray ethical areas may not result in media corruption, “but early habits always determine later ones.”
Students are told that corruption may not condemn the corrupted journalist’s soul but it forfeits his freedom. With the practice virtually unchecked in some newsrooms, future journalists wonder if that is true.
Forms, extent of corruption
Cases of media corruption are not documented: no blotter of the crime. But they’re talked about in newsrooms and coffee shops, and many tales are true.
Consider the form in which corruption can take:
 At a press conference held in a department store owned by a politician, some reporters went home each tugging a box of new shoes;
 In a small city, some reporters get P500 a week from a “paymaster” in exchange for stories about a politician being published regularly, with the promise of a hefty increase when the election campaign starts;
 In a province, anyone with a tape recorder, a member of what they call “tamburong brigade,” can dupe a mayor of a far-flung town by setting up an interview in exchange for a meal and P100 to P300.
 Some local radio stations run public affairs “one-on-one” interviews, which are invoiced as “pay-before-broadcast” commercials;
 A government office offers not just coffee and snacks but lunch: attendants keep poker faces when someone loudly reminds colleagues about lunch not being free even as he heads for the buffet table;
 An anchor person calls a public official, saying he wants him to sponsor a birthday party at this restaurant for his five-year-old son; how much a sponsor pays and how many officials sign up as sponsors only the reporter knows;
 An editor calls a p.r. man to tell his client, a public official, that he’ll accompany his wife to Manila and he needs plane tickets for two.
The form of corruption can be tricky.
Jerry Tundag, editor-in-chief of Cebu’s The Freeman, says: “To think of corruption and draw images of cold hard cash is to be hopelessly outdated. Changing lifestyles bring with them new weaknesses that can be exploited in more ways than just good old money changing hands.”
Extent of corruption varies from city to city, province to province, newsroom to newsroom. There’s no way to quantify how much of a locality’s media is tainted. It’s only by word of mouth. The sources to be believed, if one can make them talk, are the corruptors themselves or their reps.
Improvement of methods
Methods of payment vary. In urban centers, notably Manila, we hear of money being sent by ATM and routed through p.r. offices or persons. We’re told about cartels of reporters, editors and photographers that deliver “service” spanning a sector or sectors of the newspaper or broadcast station or multiple news outlets.
In the countryside, though, there has been little improvement. The good, old envelope, which spun off the banal cliché “envelopmental journalism,” remains the easy way to transfer cash. A reporter said, “Go to the rest room shortly after a presscon. Crumpled envelopes in the trash bin tell you they went there not to pee but to check how much they were getting.”
Spotting corruption signs
Corruption is committed on the sly: under the table, in dark pubs. Transacted in whispers or coded cellphone messages (“clinic karon,” meaning it’s payroll time today). No audio/video record, no paper trail. Banks are secretive, don’t open up without a court order. And journalists aren’t public officials; publishers don’t lifestyle-check their editors or reporters.
What to do then?
Editors can spot signs of a sell-out in reporters’ copy: contrived focus, one-sidedness, frequency of praise, repetitive favorable stories, omission of adverse reports, and the like, all aimed to favor the secret client.
Lawyers call them badges of fraud. To editors, they’re tell-tale signs of corrupted reporting.
Leo Lastimosa, anchor of ABS-CBN’s daily Balita Patrol and vice-chairman of KBP Cebu, says he doesn’t use suspicious stories until the cause of suspicion is removed.
If the badges of fraud or tell-tale signs keep popping up, that may be the time to confront the suspected journalist.
The human factor of keeping cordial relations, on top of scarcity of talent in the newsroom, is what prevents the confrontation. The editor is usually silent until the breach of ethics explodes into a community or industry scandal.
Not Eileen G. Mangubat, former editor-in-chief and now publisher of Cebu Daily News. “The paper has a simple black-and-white rule about envelopes—no envelopes ever.” Anyone caught will lose his job.
This summer there had been three incidents of envelope-giving: by a presidential aspirant and by two schools. The presidential wannabe, Mangubat says, was rebuffed, and the two P1,000 bills in the two other cases were donated to charity.
Proof or evidence required
The need for proof is what bugs the effort to punish and stop corruption. Proof or evidence is part of due process.
Yet, what’s required is not the kind demanded by a prosecutor (prima facie evidence) or a judge (guilt beyond reasonable doubt).
What satisfies labor laws will do. Due process is met in a mechanism that gives the journalist a chance to explain, with expulsion as ultimate punishment after lesser sanctions like reprimand or suspension.
After all, the paper or broadcast station peddles credibility. Loss of confidence in the journalist is enough reason to fire him but, as exponent of fairness and justice, the news organization hears him out first.
The few people Sun.Star had “fired” preempted that by resigning. Sun.Star Cebu executive editor [admin operations] Michelle P. So, who oversees the paper’s “rewards/sanctions system” (RSS), said the voluntary exit showed they understood how fragile trust is in the news business.
Curbing media corruption will succeed only if (1) a news organization’s leadership is serious about it, and (2) the community and media practitioners exert pressure on their peers.
Each newsroom must have an enforcer or panel of enforcers that sends the message: We won’t close our eyes to corruption. News and opinion copy must be scrutinized, not just for the dangling participle or an unchecked fact but for possible sell-out on values. Every report, even rumor, of cash-giving or favor-exacting must be checked. Isolde D. Amante, Sun.Star Cebu’s managing editor for news, regularly looks into complaints of mis-reporting and sniffs for any hint of corruption.
Newsroom enforcement can only be as effective as the stamina of its chief enforcer, usually the editor-in-chief. The publisher can only support with a clear policy against corruption, but the principal effort starts, and can end, with the editor-in-chief.
Alex Pal, editor of Dumaguete post and Philippine Daily Inquirer correspondent, believes in what editors can do to reduce corruption: Ensure that each printed or broadcast story adheres to standards. Pal notes that stories about politicians are usually one-sourced, which tolerates undisputed b.s. and puffery.
Not all newsrooms are enthusiastic about policing its ranks. Some journalists have dumped hope of reform or change.
Erwin Ambo S. Delilan, editor of Agila, a tabloid in Bacolod, says, “You cannot expect anybody from media to become the next heroes of the Republic, to be honest and fair when he or his family is languishing in hunger.” Most journalists, he says, don’t want to be canonized as saints of the media industry. He says one local paper pays only P4,200 a month for its reporters, while a broadcast network pays only P3,800 a month for its reporters.
Questions to publishers
Antonietta Lopez, a Bacolod correspondent for Philippine Star, asks: If a publisher cannot afford to pay reporters, why go into the business?
Another question to publishers is why some of them frown on unethical practices and yet ask their reporters to do errands equally questionable, such as bending rules to get a VIP pass at the airport, customs clearance for an importation, or permit for a side business.
Worse still are publishers who tolerate or encourage bad journalism as long as they bring in the money for the paper. They require their reporters to solicit ads from politicians and, an informant swears this is true, for editors to sell the Page 1 stories.
Bacolod’s Lopez asks publishers “to spare reporters from situations that can put them in compromising position with a source.” One publisher ordered a reporter to secure family-vacation rooms from a hotel featured in his paper.
Society and peer pressure
Newspapers and broadcast stations whose publishers and editors-in-chief don’t mind if their reporters and writers throw values out the window may still find hope in young journalists joining in many news outlets. Infused with idealism taught in Mass Com schools, they can agitate for change in newsroom practices.
Competition among media rivals may spill over from circulation-advertising war to a “rivalry” on good journalism practices. A mantra I keep telling editors and marketing crew is that “good journalism is good business.”
An excellent source of pressure on the practitioner is the influence of journalism councils that promote standards and values. In Cebu, we have the good fortune of having the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) and Cebu Press Freedom Week (CPFW), both active in their mandate of promoting a free and responsible press.
Peer pressure is also a deterrent. Advocates of corruption-free journalism can help stymie cash-giving attempts at presscons. Journalists who can’t explain their wealth are gossiped about by colleagues who can quickly explain their own poverty.
It still holds true, and I believe it ardently: A newsroom deserves the people who work there. So does the community that supports the news outlets. They can reduce corruption and raise standards and values if they try hard enough. [With reporting by Cherry Ann T. Lim and Michelle P. So]
Pachico A. Seares is editor-in-chief of Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu] and executive director of Cebu Citizens-Press Council.
A lawyer, he teaches Media Issues and Journalism Law & Ethics at U.P. in the Visayas Cebu College. He served two terms as trustee of Philippine Press Institute.
He was U.P. System’s Gawad Plaridel awardee in 2008 and, in 2009, awardee in journalism for both Province of Cebu’s “Garbo sa Sugbo” Awards and Perlas Foundation’s “Valuable Filipino” Awards.