Re-examining the key goals, core values, and top priorities of journalism in a changing world
At a small, rather casual, but top-level meeting of executives and editors at the Manila Bulletin office in Intramuros a few years ago, a question was asked, “What is our relationship to the people?”
The point of the meeting was to re-examine key goals, core values, and top priorities vis-à-vis public expectations that, at that time, were recoiling from the disruptive impact of new technologies.
Great change was afoot, though no one in the room, just as no one in the world, had any idea that a pandemic in just a few years would cause a complete overhaul.
To answer the question, everyone at the meeting had to do some self-reflection not only as members of the organization, but also as Filipinos and as citizens of the global community. It was important to see content, the main product, the basic thrust, the core business, in terms of the function it played in people’s lives.
Great change was afoot, though no one in the room, just as no one in the world, had any idea that a pandemic in just a few years would cause a complete overhaul. The great challenge at that time was the technology-driven mushrooming of new sources of information, although it proved to be just as much an opportunity as a challenge for time-tested institutions like the Manila Bulletin.
Then, as it is now, years before the phrase “fake news” received mainstream recognition, the world was inundated with communication. Everybody was talking at once, but only a few had much to say.
According to a study made at Carnegie Mellon University, there was an average of 175 million tweets each day in 2012, but of those tweets, 99 percent were “pointless babble.”
The US market research firm Radicati Group reported that email spam cost businesses $20 billion in 2012 while American web security company Symantec released a study around the same time, which revealed that nearly 70 percent of email traffic was spam (this staggering number rose to 85 percent in 2020, as published on the internet security website SpamLaws.com).
While blogs proliferated, many challenged their reliability as a news source, “given their highly personal and opinionated nature and the fact that anyone can create a blog and publish their thoughts on any subject they like, regardless of whether they are qualified to do so,” according to a March 2009 paper written by researchers from the University of Liecester and University of Manchester.
In a survey of web users conducted by the Center for Digital Future at USC Annenberg School, only 12 percent of the participants said they felt that most or all information posted on websites by individuals was accurate and reliable while 79 percent said they trusted information they found on websites set up by established news organizations.
After hours of deliberation, an answer to the question “What is our relationship to the people” was reached. Those present found it in media’s primary roles in any society, including informing, educating, and entertaining the public. At the close of the meeting, these roles were summed up in three words, “Inform, Inspire, Empower,” which have since become both an internal and external battle cry designed to guide every member of the Manila Bulletin in the day-to-day gathering, evaluation, production, and distribution of content.
There are now more opinions, conjecture, hard sell, propaganda, even fake news and outright fiction in the media universe, which has opened up to anyone with a gadget. But journalism remains better than “the stuff out there” because, by its very nature, journalism rests on the discipline of verification, a systematic process that a media organization is assumed to have mastered, especially a media organization like the Manila Bulletin, which has been doing it for 121 years.
While the question at the meeting raised more questions like “What is the meaning and purpose of my work in a world changing so rapidly and dramatically?” the answer was drawn simply from the unchanging fact that a journalist, whether he is a content producer or a print editor or a social media writer, has “to find not just the facts, but also the ‘truth about the facts,’” as the American Press Institute puts it. The journalist’s first job is to get it right.
This is how journalism becomes informative, inspiring, and empowering to the individual, the community, the country, and the world. This is why journalism remains indispensable to society, especially on the road to unity or healing or progress. And this is how journalism becomes a tool for nationbuilding.
Incidentally, “Inform, Inspire, Empower,” which now guides the Manila Bulletin in the role it plays in people’s lives, particularly in the lives of the Filipino, is only another way of putting what has been its long-standing tagline—“The Exponent of Philippine Progress.”