Covering the Marawi siege

“War cannot be reported as breaking news.”

This was one reminder emphasized during a forum organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) in Quezon City recently.

During the conference, Melinda Quintos de Jesus, the executive director of the CMFR, presented a study detailing how news about the Marawi siege was gathered and presented to the public.

“Reporting war should not be approached as breaking news,” the study entitled “Media on Marawi: Coverage of the Siege” said. “It is usually part of a long process involving a breakdown that usually has many causes and bears many issues.”

The study reviewed the news reports from three major broadsheets, namely the Philippine Star, the Manila Bulletin and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and news coverage from four networks, namely TV Patrol, 24 Oras, Aksyon and CNN Philippines. The news reports included in the study were either broadcast or published from May 23 to October 31, 2017.

De Jesus said: “The news and its reporting hold ideas and images that reflect how the public thinks about a subject or issue. It also raises questions about national unity and the pursuit of national development.”

She pointed out that news coverage about the Marawi Siege should not be taken in isolation. It is part of a larger chain of conflict that has links to the Zamboanga Siege and the Mamasapano Clash.

The study reminded journalists that news reports were the “first draft of history.” New reports and coverage “should involve the kind of journalistic interest in meaning, with interpretation of events and developments supported by a broad comprehensive understanding of the subject and its issues, and an appreciation of its significance and relevance to the public.”

“Like the historian, the journalist works with sources, individuals interviewed and documents read,” the study said. “The quality of coverage and the discourse and the discourse the news supports depends on the quality of information provided by the reporter’s selected sources. Quality information enlarges the scope of reports, generates more leads, broadens the scope of reports as it secures the findings of the journalistic probe and inquiry.”

For the broadsheets, the study found that out of 25,921 news reports, 5.81% or 1,505 were about the Marawi siege or Marawi-related reports.

For TV coverage, the study found that out of 25,921 reports, 5% or 1,451 were about the Marawi siege or Marawi-related reports.

The review of the coverage within the time frame of the study revealed a startling fact. The CMFR executive director said previous coverage of conflict in Mindanao has never depicted Moros as victims until the Marawi siege.

This can be seen more clearly once the Marawi coverage was compared with how reports about the Estrada administration’s military campaign against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was presented and how what happened in the Mamasapano incident was presented.

She explained that these showed how ideas were framed in the public mind can lead to fixation to certain stereotypes.

According to the CMFR study, three themes dominated news pages and airtime. These three were the conduct of war, the aid for afflicted communities and the implementation of martial law in Mindanao.

“Conduct of war was the most reported theme in the front pages of the newspapers reviewed. Afflicted communities/evacuation combined to make the second most prominent subject. It was lower by more than half of the number of reports on the ground operations. The third was Martial Law.”

The study also found a definite slant in the news coverage.

De Jesus said that since the government controlled the narrative, the coverage was predominantly in favor of how the Duterte administration handled the Marawi siege.

Out of 305 print news reports, 234 were favorable to the military and only 71 reports put the Armed Forces of the Philippines in a negative light.

The same treatment was found in the print coverage of martial law in Mindanao. Out of 179 news reports, 112 were favorable to martial law and 67 reports were against martial law.

The CMFR executive director explained that this was due to journalists’ choice of sources.

According to the CMFR study, all the top 15 sources cited in print news media were from the government: Eight were from the military, five were from the national government, one from the local government and one from the Philippine National Police.

The top ten sources used in TV coverage were also from the government: Five were from the military, three from the national government and two were from local government.

The CMFR study emphasized the point that “war also weighs heavily on the source or sources.”

“Media recorded statements but did not point to the underlying lack of official certainty about the scope of the challenge posed by the terror group,” the study pointed out. “As the conflict unfolded this lack of intelligence no longer mattered as much of the public was forced to accept the reality of extended fighting in a battle zone. Still, the media continued to report statements about developments in the field, to which they had little actual access.”

“Into June, there was little else apart from the footage of air strikes and the bombing of Marawi to help the public sense the weight of the tragedy for the people of Marawi,” the study added.

“Media were forced to wait for the regular Monday and Friday briefings to get news,” the study reported. “As this was aired live on PTV-4, what information the media had was received at the same time by anyone else who was interested enough to tune in on PTV-4.” (To be continued)



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