Presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos accused Jessica Soho of being “biased” against his family when he declined to be interviewed by the veteran journalist. In a later interview with One News, he said biased meant being “anti-Marcos”.
Marcos was the only one among the five leading presidential candidates who skipped the Soho interview chair on GMA News. While he was not afraid to face the media, he said he would rather discuss more pressing issues than the dictatorship of his father and namesake, the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
During the 2016 election season, President Rodrigo Duterte also hit media outlets Rappler and ABS-CBN over alleged biased. Before him, former President Joseph Estrada criticized the Philippine Daily Inquirer for supposed being bias and an advertising boycott ensued. Former President Corazon Aquino sued journalist Louie Beltran for saying that she hid under her bed during a coup attempt.
Being the so-called “Fourth Estate”, the media serves as the watchdog for excesses committed by public officials, and a reliable source of information. But when journalists start asking the hard questions, is it tantamount to being biased?
Critical questions, uncomfortable they may be to some politicians, must be asked to complete the story and get to the truth, University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao said.
“There are a lot of critical questions that should be thrown at the candidates for the simple reason that we want to get to the truth of the problems besetting society and what they think would be the solutions to these problems,” he told reportr.
“You can only do that by asking the right questions, and usually the right questions are the critical questions,” he added.
The role of journalists during elections
Apart from reporting about the policy statements and platforms of the candidates, journalists help shape public opinion during the elections, Arao said. It’s their primary duty to introduce and scrutinize candidates so that voters can make an informed choice on election day.
“The media should help the voters make informed decisions by knowing who the candidates are, knowing their platforms, how they analyze problems and what are their proposed solutions to problems if and when they get elected into office,” he added.
Journalists also help contextualize the elections, Arao said. This way, the public will be able to understand the importance of the democratic exercises and its impact to the country’s future.
It’s also the job of journalists to highlight underreported aspects of the elections, Arao said, such as candidates who may not have the financial machinery for a nationwide campaign, or even partylist groups who may not be enjoying enough media mileage compared to the popular or controversial ones.
“It's important to highlight the particular significance of the party-list elections. After all, this is the item in the ballot that has the most number of candidates, and you only choose one,” he said.
Biased vs. fair question
When a journalist asks a well-researched question that may sound negative to the interviewee, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the question is biased. For Arao, biased questions are ones that were constructed without enough research or are just plain baseless.
“Questions like 'Are you a communist?' or 'Since when have you embraced the communist ideology?’ are loaded questions that have no place in journalism,” he said.
Critical or fair questions, on the other hand, need to be asked because they aim to clarify or get the side of the subject of the story, no matter how uncomfortable they are, Arao said.
“If I were the journalist who asked that question and Marcos gave that answer, I would ask a follow-up question: What do you mean by being pro-Marcos? Is pro-Marcos being biased? For sure he would say that that's responsible journalism or at least neutral journalism,” he said.
“We don’t teach journalism that just because you are against something, you are already automatically biased. That doesn't apply,” he added.
What’s next for journalism?
With the role and credibility of the media being questioned, journalists must push back and ensure that press freedom and the people’s right to information are protected. Aside from the striving to tell the truth, reporters also should foster the culture of fact-checking, Arao said.
“When do you report the lie or the distortion? You do it in the context of fact-checking. You use the journalistic output to clarify that this thing that's spreading on social media is not the truth, and that is the truth. You have to make it clear,” he added.
Journalists, and the public in general, should also push candidates to take a stand on press freedom and show how they would address the continuous attacks to the media once they are elected into office, Arao said.
“It's not just press freedom, it's about specific programs and policies that would create an atmosphere that will ensure that what happened to ABS-CBN, Rappler, the relentless red-tagging against members of the press, especially the alternative media, how they can put a stop to these things?” he added.
At the end of the day, it’s only when the press is free and independent that the public can truly understand what’s happening around them and demand accountability from their leaders.
“Press freedom may be a boring issue for some people because it doesn't put food on the table, theoretically it creates jobs on a limited scale, but nevertheless we still need to instill the value that without press freedom, there will be that insatiable hunger for information from the people,” Arao said.