On the controversial coverage of the Tucao ambush

Last week’s lamentably dubious coverage of the Tucao ambush by certain members of the local media highlighted the difference between traditional journalism and online journalism.

In the race to be the first to upload news of the ambush, the online journalists presented inaccurate information from unofficial sources.

The reports on Facebook said PSMS John Teston’s body was dragged by his attackers on the barangay road using a motorcycle. Another policeman, who later turned out to be very much alive, was reported to be dead, much to the anger of his family and neighbors who had already set up a “ramada” at their house in preparation for the wake.

Three other officers were captured, the uncorroborated reports claimed despite the lack of an official report from the San Miguel police station.

Even the New People’s Army chimed with its own view on the fake news, describing it as lies intentionally crafted by government forces to smear what it claimed to be the revolutionary movement’s excellent record in respecting human rights and the laws on armed conflict.

The Catanduanes Provincial Police Office tried to dissuade the local media from uploading the inaccurate information and it was largely successful in convincing most of them from doing so, except for two or three individuals.

In the current media revolution that is irrevocably transforming the nature of journalism and its ethics, as pointed out by Stephen J.A. Ward of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics, there is tension between traditional journalism and online journalism.

“The culture of traditional journalism, with its values of accuracy, pre-publication verification, balance, impartiality, and gate-keeping, rubs up against the culture of online journalism which emphasizes immediacy, transparency, partiality, non-professional journalists and post-publication correction,” Ward states.

In the previous century, journalists were a clearly defined group and the public had no great difficulty in identifying members of the “press,” Ward wrote in his article “Digital Media Ethics.”

“Today, citizens without journalistic training and who do not work for mainstream media calls themselves journalists, or write in ways that fall under the general description of a journalists as someone who regularly writes on public issues for a public or audience,” he said.

With reports and images circulating the globe with amazing speed via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, cell phones, and email, speed puts pressure on newsrooms to publish stories before they are adequately checked and verified as to the source of the story and the reliability of the alleged facts, Ward lamented.

“But a media that thrives on speed and ‘sharing’ creates the potential for great harm,” he underscored.

He suggested that guidelines should be articulated for dealing with rumors and corrections in an online world that are consistent with the principles of accuracy, verification, and transparency.

Clearly, the existing Code of Ethics for Filipino journalists, crafted in 1988, could stand vital amendments.

It assumes the local media personality knows his job as a journalist as far as verification is concerned, as it asks the media to “scrupulously report and interpret the news, taking care not to suppress essential facts nor to distort the truth by omission and improper emphasis.”

Missing is the obligation to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, to verify information, and use original sources whenever possible, as espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in the United States of America.

In the Tucao coverage, there was no way the writers of the inaccurate news can completely absolve themselves of the error: their source was a member of the local police who was not authorized to release information. There was even one who relied on the exchange of text messages between lawmen.

Being the first to report breaking news in whatever format is no excuse for inaccuracy.

By acknowledging mistakes and making the necessary corrections, a journalist takes responsibility for his or her work.

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