What is News? How is it created? Who defines it?

NEWS CREATION is the least democratic process of the media machine. Mainstream media reflects issues, concerns and perspectives as defined by the power elites in society, not the interests of citizens at large.

As publishers, editors and media educators, we train our young reporters to be neutral, objective and facts-based. We warn them not to insert their personal views or bias into a news story. “Report the facts”, we say and let readers make the moral judgments.

It is standard procedure in news gathering to refer to “Authoritative Sources”. That is a cardinal principle of validation and “fact-checking”.

No news editor will pass a story which fails to check with and seek comment from an “Authoritative Source”, preferably with attribution and direct quotes. It somehow makes the report more credible. It gives editors the cozy feeling that they have followed the rules of the game.

That is where it all begins to go wrong!

“Authoritative Sources” at the national level are The President, Department Secretaries, Senators, the Police Chief, the Army Chief, the Church and Captains of Industry – at the local level Governors, Mayors, Police, Chairmen of various local authorities and Landowners.

What does “Authoritative Sources” represent in any society?

Whether in China, Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, the USA or The Philippines, “Authoritative Sources” are the power structure and the privileged elites who feed on it.

Mainstream media refers and defers to them. They influence the way news is reported and interpreted.

[More importantly, they often decide what will go un-reported or not followed-up]

No editor, publisher or media owner regards social workers, civil rights groups, environmental activists, women’s rights groups or NGOs as “Authoritative Sources”.

The media dismiss them as inconsequential, despite their deep understanding of societal dysfunctions and close interaction with the victims of unfair distribution of public investment, education and opportunity.

The people who best articulate the dilemma of the dispossessed are denied space. There are security laws in place for the power structure to shut them up for causing a ‘public disturbance’ if they get too active.

They also cannot afford lawyers to spring them from jail, if locked away.

The poor do not have the money, influence or political levers to propose, pass or veto legislation. In the power equation within society, they therefore do not count.

So while we convince ourselves that professional journalistic practice brings objectivity to news stories, the reality is that mainstream media reflects the prevailing power relationships in society and reinforces the status-quo.

The FRONT PAGES of our daily newspapers illustrate that phenomenon of media bias for the power elite – typically The President, Legislators, Business Leaders, Mayors, City Councilors enjoy disproportionate media access, space, airtime and positive ‘spin’.

They are deemed “Authoritative Sources” despite much evidence of abuse of power, theft of public assets, self-enrichment, venality and outright lying.

If a news story quotes from the underclass or NGOs, it will be a token one sentence buried in the belly of the tale – if used at all. Mainstream media marginalizes ideas and feedback the political and economic elites dislike.

Within The Philippine context I must recognize the unusual role The Inquirer plays as a fierce watchdog on bad governance. I often hear criticism of its deep distrust of public officials and its tendency to find fault.

When the privileged and the powerful are uncomfortable and nervous about media scrutiny, it is a healthy sign. They have much to hide.

The PDI stands out for remaining true to its founding spirit. That is an amazing feat for a newspaper and a business, juggling the conflicts between commerce and editorial mission.

What about investigative reporting? What about Watergate?

Traditional media does indulge in critical coverage of the power elites – especially when they criticize each other. That is news. But that is all part of the “noise level” of internal competition within the power structure.

Media rarely challenges the legitimacy or moral authority of the power structure itself.

The Washington Post prompted Congress to impeach President Nixon over Watergate. But it never challenged the excessive powers of the US presidency or the Republican-Democratic duopoly which has hijacked the political agenda from the man-on-the-street.

The dirty-tricks squad of the Republicans bungled their break-in to the offices of the Democratic Party Convention. It had been authorized by President Nixon but he denied it.

By making Nixon the “Judas Goat” and driving him out of the village, the American body politic cleansed itself of all sin. (Nixon was guilty of the biggest sin in politics – the Sin of Getting Caught.)

The Establishment declared Watergate an aberration, banished Nixon and reverted to business as usual. Nothing has changed for the better in US politics or presidential abuse of power.

This celebrated piece of investigative journalism reinforced the legitimacy of the status-quo by not going beyond the mechanics of the Watergate cover-up to lay bare the obvious corrosion, corruption, decay and dysfunction of the US political system.

In The Philippines, several NGOs led by former journalists, are funded to investigate and report bad governance. They unearth and document abuses at national and local levels, including government-business collusion through lobbyists and sponsors in the Senate.

Sometimes when a scandal is outrageous, exceeding even the norms of acceptable political criminality (what an idea!), it finds its way into mainstream media – usually when political opportunism prompts rivals to score points on the Senate floor.

Much systemic abuse, despite NGO documentation, remains outside the public sphere because mainstream media ignores them, or squeamish editors bury the reports away from prime news pages.

So long as media institutionalizes preference for the powerful and the rich as more credible news sources over the powerless and the poor, victims of social injustice will remain voiceless and public service crooks will prosper.

Power elites manage politics “on behalf” of citizens, aided and abetted by compliant media and the illusion of popular democracy.

The ‘mandate to rule’, gained through creative purchase and manipulation of the political process, confers on politicos a privileged access to media – and a right to shut out alternative, “unelected” voices.

The supreme irony in the collusion of media channels with power structures is that it is entrenched through the journalistic practice of deferring to “Authoritative Sources”.

Editors mandate this discipline in newsrooms all over the world, believing it to be a core principle of professional media practice.

Media educators and editors need to seriously review this “Authoritative Source” sacred cow of journalism.

What should we teach our reporters instead?

Start with powerful skepticism. It is time for responsible media to stop playing to the rules set by power elites. Co-option is not an option for honest journalists in dishonest and twisted political systems.

When the ballot box itself has been stolen by the rich and their party mafia, the political process is already illegitimate.

When media is also owned or controlled by the same gangs, all is lost.

Should there be strict media legislation to quarantine news media from political party or Big Business ownership?

How is news framed? Who frames it?

After the Sept 11th, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Stephen Jukes, head of REUTERS News circulated a staff memo on not using descriptors like “terrorist attack” for REUTERS copy.

He made (for REUTERS) the startling observation that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. For the 150-year old global news organization to realize this truism one-and-a-half Centuries late, confirms the deeply embedded biases of Western news reporting generally.

The REUTERS website further explains: “We avoid the use of emotive words unless they are a direct quote. We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report actions, identity and background so that readers can make their own decisions based on facts.

BBC World News followed suit two months later.

It is not a thunderbolt of enlightenment that hit the bosses of REUTERS and the BBC in 2001. It is not a flush of righteousness or professional ethics.

No, both these organizations are global media channels. They cannot afford to alienate their growing and profitable Third World and Muslim audiences. It is a logical business decision. Here we have a rare case of globalization and commercial interest coinciding with objectivity in news media.

None of the US news media organizations accept or follow this principle.

William Safire, columnist with the New York Times supported the characterization of the Twin Towers attackers as “terrorists”. Safire traced the term ‘terrorist’ to the Latin verb ‘terrere’ which means ‘to frighten’.

He declared: “the most precise word to describe anyone who murders even one innocent civilian to send a political message, is terrorist.”

It escaped the erudite Safire that by his definition, the United States of America must today rank as the world’s most callous terrorist State for its invasion of Iraq, killing of civilians, destruction of their homes and livelihood as ‘collateral damage’ – to send a message to invisible terrorists everywhere else!

The biggest State terrorism event of all human history would surely be the atom bombs the US dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945 which vaporized 100,000 innocent civilians immediately and killed as many more through radiation effects.

Radio Tokyo broadcast the grim Hiroshima event to its citizens as: “Practically all living things, human and animal, were seared to death”.

It was a message to the Japanese government to surrender quickly, even as the US already knew it was desperately searching for a way to do so.

- Was the second atom bomb necessary after demonstration of the total devastation capacity of the first?

- Were US war planners testing two different nuclear detonation technologies on live targets?

- Did the planned mass incineration of Japanese civilians twice, matter to anyone in Washington?

- Was a nuclear mass-destruction option ever considered against the Germans?

I have puzzled often over these inconvenient questions. Victors write history.

Does New Media change the news landscape?

Nothing better illustrates the dramatic disclosure impacts of the mobile phone and digital transmission, than the 2007 street protests in Myanmar.

When fuel prices doubled at the pumps overnight in August, it hit ordinary citizens hard as transportation and food prices rose in tandem. The government abandoned fuel price subsidies as its financial reserves could not keep pace with soaring oil import prices.

Myanmar is under US and EEC trade sanctions, so institutions like the World Bank, IMF and ADB cannot offer any economic assistance to alleviate poverty or invest in long-term infrastructure projects. As with similar experience elsewhere, it is ordinary people who suffer the most.

Citizens took to the streets to protest these additional hardships. Having little for themselves, they stopped giving alms to the Buddhist monks whose daily ritual is to walk the streets with empty bowls for their meals. That brought the famished monks out to join the general protests too.

The peoples’ protests were about basic livelihood matters, not political ideology. Later, other players with political agendas would join the fray.

No foreign correspondents are allowed to function in Burma. News crews could not fly in to film events. The government shut down telephone lines and Internet ISPs as civil unrest escalated.

Video clips of the street protests and the military response to restore order, were captured on mobile phones by activists, smuggled out to Thailand and transmitted worldwide through satellite news channels and the Internet.

The world watched repeats of the video clips on global satellite feeds with in-studio armchair pundits. The government responded clumsily to United Nations, ASEAN, India, China and European Union appeals. Resolution of the underlying governance issues in Myanmar, are yet a work in progress.

Lessons? Blocking out domestic press and TV does not help. Denial has been removed as an option. Centralized news management is defeated by new consumer technology.

Governments have to be accountable and transparent in public affairs, even in ‘closed’ media environments.

You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and Friendster are magnets for world youth discovering the joy of momentary fame and freedom of global networking. Video clips travel with high velocity through these sites.

The torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light through photo-sharing, not mainstream media. The telephone conversation to fix senior judicial appointments in Malaysia, between a powerful ‘broker’ and the Chief Justice, was captured on a mobile phone and publicized through You Tube.

Does that mean the demise of mainstream news media?

I was asked recently at an international seminar, by a senior editor from Bangkok, whether, as it is technically possible for news to be broadcast digitally from anywhere to anywhere, there would be no need in the future for local newspapers and TV?

I very much doubt that. There are always technical possibilities but whether that alone will supplant trusted news brands locally or internationally, is another matter.

As amateur news-generation proliferates, busy consumers will revert to brands with a worthy track record, even if they are occasionally amused by flashes of incidental amateur content.

Amateur bloggers may have points of view but little interest or capacity, to verify facts or research background. While bloggers and mobile phone paparazzi can flag up incidental events and images, they are woefully inadequate at making meaning of them.

They are not and never will be substitutes for comprehensive news media. They are useful as supplementary resources in areas beyond staff beats.

The news business costs serious money to employ professionals, invest in technology, sustain long-term quality news reporting and contextualized presentation. Informed citizens will accept nothing less.

What distinguishes professional journalism from fiction, propaganda, public relations, advertising and entertainment, is the discipline of fact-checking and the gatekeepers within who enforce it.

Media organizations have incorporated chaotic Netizen journalism into their portfolio of content sources as leads and incidental news suppliers.

As for the threat of a global news organization using technology to displace entire national media systems, that has not happened with satellite broadcasts which have been in place for twenty years.

The deep cultural, contextual, historical, religious, ethnic and political understandings necessary to make sense of complex local developments, rules out zapping of local journalism with multiple-warhead news missiles launched from the other side of the globe. That will remain a technical fantasy for movies.

However, digital technology is increasingly driving more news-bytes and less news, to time-impoverished citizens. That is further exacerbated by consumer-defined, limited content downloads. People are opting out of being fully informed on current affairs.

It is entirely possible that we are rapidly shifting to a social polarization of news formats, where paid-for, in-depth news reports and features will continue to serve the leisure classes while FREE papers stuffed with celebrity gossip and sport, will titillate the rest.

The implications of that for an informed citizenry and democratic participation, are frightening.