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A little lesson in journalistic accuracy

In journalism, there are two ways—and these must be achieved simultaneously—to guarantee accuracy.

First, go hot on the trail of the facts, thereby securing backdrop, history and context; and second, the proper use of language.

By the latter, I mean the right choice of words, perfectly sculpted lines, and ideas strung so neatly as to depict a clear unvarnished picture of what needed saying in the mind of the reader.

Most journalists are not strangers to the first principles of fact-gathering, except those pretenders whose “facts” must equal their under-the-table fees.

The second, however—the proper use of language—should give all good journalists pause.

Unlike the era of the old guard, it seems that modern-day journalism is badly in need of wordsmiths, these poets and storytellers on the fly. These are artists who strive mightily for words and wrestle with their lines, even as they live under the threat of a deadline and fang-spangled Perry White sorts of editors.

The truth deserves reiteration: If a picture paints a thousand words, then what’s stopping a well-chosen word, one made momentous by its perfection, from painting a thousand—and one—better pictures? I guess none.

History can attest to the extent of crimes committed, and conflicts waged, those strongly-held by memory, on this act of singular irreverence: Choosing the wrong word. Wars had been fought where millions had died, in the arena of a word either wrongly chosen or hurled inadvertently in anger, ignorance or one lost in translation.

It was 1945. The story begins with the Allied Powers giving Japan their ultimatum for surrender. Indifference to the warning meant untold disaster for the Land of the Rising Sun.

In response, the Japanese Prime Minister at the time, Kantaro Suzuki, immediately called for a press conference.

The foreign media, mostly composed of Americans and eager for an answer, asked Suzuki for his government’s response to the ultimatum.

Suzuki replied, “Mokusatsu.”

Interestingly, the word is composed of two separate Japanese characters: Moku, meaning silent, and satsu meaning kill. In the past, the Prime Minister had used the word to simply mean “No comment.”

As the war raged on its last legs, it was understandable why the American press felt annoyed at Suzuki’s response. The seven year stretch, from 1939 to 1945, saw the deaths of roughly 12 million American military personnel and non-combatant units. The American media, it seemed, had all the reason to be upset at the show of quiet defiance.

Why? Because they mistakenly translated in next day’s news the Japanese Prime Minister’s words to mean “Not worthy of comment.” Ergo, in the minds of the American media, the Japanese top brass just gave the Allied Powers the cold shoulder.

Abruptly, and without so much ado, the rephrasing of “no comment” to “not worthy of comment” sent out ripples of what was then perceived as unsolicited insult—hardly intended by the Japanese official, I suppose—across the four corners of the Allied nations.

Ten days later, Hiroshima happened. The next four months saw 146,000 Japanese dying or dead due to the effects of the atomic blast and the ensuing nuclear radiation.

While it would be premature to assume that such errors will not happen in this day and age of information-at-the-flick-of-a-finger (humanity has this untarnished distinction in the animal kingdom of not learning from their mistakes; rats have better chances at a PhD), there is some practical, albeit sinister, use for deliberate inaccuracies in the use of language today.

One objective comes to mind: To further implant in the psyche of a generally apathetic public a broader sense of indifference to issues close to home.

I will cite two examples. First, the days following the Ampatuan massacre in Shariff Aguak, Maguindano. Second, the many Chinese incursions into the West Philippine Sea.

A close colleague one morning gave me a call and convinced me to re-study statements released by the Ampatuan family about the massacre.

To reboot, the bloody massacre was staged by more than 200 of Ampatuan’s men, all armed to the teeth. At the onset, they were no more perceived as the warlords and thugs and murderers than they truly were.

Subsequent statements of the family to the press, however, redefined these criminals as “freedom fighters.” The redefinition had several goals in mind: First, to inject some “nobility” to the cause of bearing arms and their act of killing. To be reclassified as “rebels with a cause”—it somehow had a nice ring to it.

Likewise, the redefinition paved the way (or at least they had hoped it would) for lesser sentences for the charges of mass murder leveled against them. As “rebels,” their heinous acts took on a higher, more gallant form, and not as the crimes the law says they committed.

For a time, the strategy succeeded in convincing a largely incautious and sloppy media of the Ampatuans’ claims of being rebels with a cause, so much so that journalists with keener eyes lost no time inexposing the errors.

The Ampatuans were killers, plain and simple. Had the false use of the words “freedom fighter” stuck, then the acceptance would’ve caused a massive change in public and legal perception.

Words shape perception and awaken discernment. In no other issue is this truism trampled upon than China’s incursion into the West Philippine Sea.

Fishermen—Chinese, Filipinos, or what-have-you—break bone and muscle to do one thing: To fish. This most innocent of occupations China had twisted to their advantage.

Chinese mainland media, seemingly “in cooperation” with some Philippine news outlets, choose to describe the activities of Chinese fishermen within the Philippine economic zones as simply “fishing,” when in truth, these acts are crimes.

Simply put, with each expedition of Chinese fishermen into our sovereign waters, international laws, to say little of the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea and the much touted Hague decision, are broken and shattered, thereby consigning criminal liability for each incursion into our sovereign waters.

As it is, however, these laws are made to look toothless, if not altogether pointless, by the simple but inaccurate use of the word “fishing,” which for all intents and purposes generally comes off as a harmless activity.

My point is this: Up to what extent should the Philippine media call it “fishing,” and not a crime? How long must it take us to call a spade a spade? It’s high time we call it is: the unabashed breaking of our laws and international laws.

Language and its usage are not immune to the laws of retardation. The more we turn a blind eye to this problem in usage of language, the more our stories can be easily reshaped to follow the whims and wiles of the corrupt and deceitful.

As journalists, our allegiance to accuracy requires a level of precision the likes of which must remain, at best, unassailable. Perfection, of course, in any professional discipline, is a foregone conclusion.

But when roused to see the things as they really are, journalists must do more than simply draw the line. We must, in the same breath, choose the exact and appropriate expressions. G

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