Thursday, June 12, 2008

An attempt to manage the news

It's a special thing when the media honors a gentleman's agreement not to report on a particular story, even if it means withholding information from info-addicts like myself, for a good cause. An example of this was when the notoriously uncivil British press agreed not to expose Prince Harry's adventures of active combat in Afghanistan a couple of months ago. It's like if someone placed a juicy smoked sausage in front of a hungry rottweiler's nose, and the dog obeyed when told not to eat it. It's an awesome trick, and when it happens you can't help but stare and smile at the achievement.

But when the Philippine media outfits received ABS-CBN's request to keep the story of news anchor Ces Drilon's kidnapping hush-hush, it was so unevenly implemented that it left ABS-CBN looking very exposed. Some outfits were accurately treating the story as Monday's big current thing, others treating the story like some small thing, and yet others acting as if there was nothing. If this was supposed to be a secret, it was very poorly kept. Once the information gets out there's just no stopping it, and those that try just end up looking a bit silly.

My reaction to this is... hmm, no, not hostility-- but there's at least a dash of pointed suspicion. What exactly does keeping the story quiet achieve, and would they do the same in other cases if the victim was not one of their own?

I first heard the news of the kidnapping on Tuesday morning with a small article tucked away at the side of the Inquirer's website. Ces Drilon kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf! I don't even turn on the TV that much, and I still recognize the name. She's the news anchor of a program on ANC, isn't she? A story like this isn't normally tucked away at the side or ignored. The Inquirer eventually had the kidnapping as their top story with their issue on Wednesday, a full day late, with an accompanying article explaining that ABS-CBN requested a news blackout.

This is the same media that so insistently tells us of how important they are, with sweeping phrases like "freedom of the press", "the public has a right to know", and my personal pet peeve "the truth shall set you free" (cue the violins and choir of angels!). If there was an extraordinary benefit to be had from their attempt to cloak this particular kidnapping from the public, I'm not seeing it. A blackout lulls the people, especially the people of Sulu where the kidnapping took place, into a false sense of security.

It may seem like a natural move to try to control the flow of information when people's safety is at stake, but when the media gives itself the responsibility of deciding which facts we need to know, it puts stress in their bond of trust with the public.

Would the media agree not to report on a famous person's kidnapping if that person were not part of the media? When the government requests discretion in reporting on an issue are they going to take heed or cry suppression? What about information involving national security? Or damaging speculation on the economy?

I'm not going to pass judgment, but these are questions the media will have to reflect upon, lest they risk drifting into hypocrisy.

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