By Raïssa Robles
This is the draft of the lecture I delivered during last week’s “Reaching Out to Future Journalists” forum held by Sunstar publication at San Carlos University in Cebu City. It was attended by students from the University of San Carlos, Bendicto College, Cebu Normal University, University of the Philippines, University of the Visayas, Southwestern University and Cebu Institute of Technology-University.
I have a confession to make. I have turned down many invitations to speak before many forums because I believe a journalist is best read than heard. However, this was one invite I felt I had to accept because of the audience and the topic. I was not disappointed. In that packed hall, I believe, will come some of our future journalists who will make a difference.
They came and they listened, even though I’m not a celebrity, but just a blogger and a journo in the trenches :)
Maayong buntag ninyong tanan.
I am very very glad to be here with you all today.
I wish to thank Sunstar, editor-in-chief Isolde Amante, executive editor Michelle So, managing editor for special pages and features Cherry Ann Lim, Smart Communications for sponsoring today’s event, the University of San Carlos and of course all of you for taking the time out to come here.
Our topic today is the News Commentary
Let’s begin by distinguishing it from “news” or what we call “spot news”, from “news analysis”, and from editorial.
For instance, the top story in Cebu yesterday was the shooting of a businessman and his young daughter along Happy Valley road.
The news on it reported the who, what, when, where of the incident.
A news analysis of the incident would try to answer the question – why did the shooting take place? Is there a trend of such crimes? How many such crimes took place last year? Have any suspects using motorcycles been caught? If not, why not?
While a news commentary would go one step further and give opinions about the murder. For instance, what does this shooting say about the peace and order in Cebu? Is this bad for Cebu? What good can possibly come out of it? Is it a wake up call or just more of the same? Who is to blame?
A news commentary is also different from an editorial. An editorial is the stand of a publication on a particular issue. A news commentary is more personal. It is the comment of one person oftentimes on a raging issue.
But what makes a news commentary different from what people post every day on Facebook about what’s happening?
A news commentary is an “informed opinion” – an opinion based on factual information by a particular person. And you listen to that person because you trust his judgment and the accuracy of the information he is basing this on.
In newspapers, news commentaries are often written by columnists. Now with the Internet, news commentaries can also be found in blogs like mine.
But like the news dailies, I try to signal to my readers when I’m writing “spot news”, “news analysis” or “news commentary” which I label – “Just my opinion” or “Commentary”.
I must say, some news reports on the front page of Philippine newspapers are more like columns or commentaries. One thing I have to stress. I am a purist when it comes to news. The personal opinion of the news writer should never appear in a news report. Personal opinions properly belong to news commentaries.
Making such a distinction is a way of respecting the reader.
But there are imaginative ways of injecting personal opinion in news reports. If you can find someone who will speak on the record and say the things you actually want to say. Then you can quote that person in the news report. Otherwise, you have to leave it out.
As I said, columnists usually write news commentaries because they are most at home in writing out their opinions. Sometimes, too at home, that they leave out the facts. Or distort them.
Commentaries that distort the facts to suit the arguments verge on propaganda. There’s a thin wall between personal advocacy and propaganda. That wall is the body of facts that the commentator presents to sway you to his arguments.
And this brings me to the Dos and donts of news commentary
As I said, it should always be “informed opinion.” Actually, that’s what my hubby told me the other night when I was discussing today’s lecture. He’s the journalism graduate. I’m a graduate of Imaginative Writing. What I learned about journalism, I learned on the job from foreign editors.
There are four steps to writing a news commentary. First, research the facts. Second, counter-check the facts gathered. Third, write out the piece. And fourth, rewrite and edit it.
To me, all these steps are important to make a good commentary.
If you are highly familiar with the subject, the research and counter-checking will be fast and easy.
You can always tell if someone writing a news commentary has taken the time out to rewrite and edit. The piece is a joy to read. It flows from one idea to another.
When I am writing a news commentary I always ask myself – is there something new that I can bring to the table? Is there a new insight I can contribute? If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If not, I scrap whatever I have written.
What you see in my blog is what I chose to publish. You have not seen the many that I chose to kill.
There is a saying about writers – a good writer is one who is ready kill his darlings.
A news commentary also reveals the personality and leanings of the opinion writer. That is also what sets it apart from a news report. And this is why it’s difficult to write commentaries. I’ll tell you a secret. Many reporters are actually shy. Very private. They don’t want others to know a lot about themselves.
Writing a news commentary forces one to make a stand. Publicly.
And this is where problems can begin.
Many commentators of news give personal opinions on political events. Naturally, one would have to talk about the political personalities behind those events.
As a rule, political personalities do not like to be taken down a peg or two. They do not like to be criticized. Or sneered at. Or laughed at.
So this brings us to the discussion of libel.
How do you avoid being sued for libel when you do commentaries?
There is no fool-proof way. Libel is in the eye of the person filing the lawsuit against you. If he thinks he was libelled, there is nothing you can do about it.
Please recall the former First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo’s 11 libel suits against 46 journalists in 2006. One of the grounds he cited was that Lito Banayo in his column called him “gordo” or fat.
Even if that was an accurate Spanish word for Arroyo’s rotundity, he felt it was grounds for libel. Perhaps in Arroyo’s world, the word “gordo” has a more malevolent meaning than the word “taba” in Tagalog or “tambok” in Cebuano.
You see, I was told that Spanish is the language he and his wife use when conversing with each other. One diplomat told me that during one overseas trip in the presence of other Filipino diplomats President Arroyo and her First Gentleman switched to speaking in Spanish. Unfortunately, one of the diplomats knew Spanish and he did not like the way the power couple alluded to them.As muchacho.
As I said, you cannot avoid libel 100% but you can try to make sure you can beat it or whoever is contemplating on suing you finds little reason to do so.
ONE is to make sure your facts are correct.
One prominent commentator in the post-Martial
Law period was slapped with a libel suit by President Corazon Aquino because the key fact in his story was incorrect. Louie Beltran wrote that during one coup attempt, Mrs Aquino hid under her bed.
A furious Mrs Aquino brought reporters into her bedroom and lifted the bed cover to show that there was no gap between the floor and the bed. So she could not have possibly cowered under there.
The implications of the country’s first female president hiding under a bed while rebel soldiers tried to topple her presidency were so serious that Mrs Aquino felt compelled to sue Beltran for libel. You see, during the 1986 polls, President Ferdinand Marcos had made fun of her and called her weak because she was a woman.
Beltran and the Philippine Star publisher were convicted. But after Beltran’s death, the conviction was reversed. Beltran could have avoided much grief if he had just asked a reporter to do some fact-checking for him.
The SECOND WAY to reduce the chances of being sued for libel is to get the side of whoever you are lambasting in the news commentary.
Let’s take the case of radio broadcaster Alexander Adonis. He read out loud an account in a tabloid about then House Speaker Prospero Nograles allegedly running naked in a hotel to escape an angry husband who had caught him with his wife in bed. Nograles sued Adonis and Manila-based Abante Tonite publisher Allen Macasaet, managing editor Nicolas Quijano Jr., and reporters Bernard Aguinod and Erwin Corpuz.
But only Adonis was convicted and went to jail. The reporters and editors of Abante did not because Nograles had withdrawn the libel charges after they had issued a public apology.
Adonis said he tried to get Nograles’ side the very day he had read out the story, but could not reach him. When the story is as incendiary as this, perhaps one day is not enough to try to get someone’s side.
Another word of caution – when you are trying to reach a source and the source is not answering his mobile phone, you have to say so in the story.
Sometimes when the story is so delicious I am also tempted to do the same thing that Adonis did. Or when I know the person might hang up on me or start cursing me. But this is a step that even news commentators have to do. There are times that a news commentator is spared from such a task – if the subject has already spoken to another news outlet about the same topic. Then the news commentator can quote what he said, with the proper attribution of the source.
The THIRD THING to remember so as to reduce the chances of libel is to be very careful with descriptions, especially adjectives. Remember Lito Banayo calling Mr Arroyo “gordo.” And apparently, what incensed Nograles about Adonis’ radio commentary on him was that Adonis had called him “burlesque king.”
Later, Nograles forgave Adonis after Adonis had apologized for that very vivid description.
So be very, very careful with adjectives. Now, if a news commentator was somehow able to get – say a political rival of Nograles – to describe Nograles as a “burlesque king”, then the commentator would not be liable for that libel.
Libel is a defence of the rich and the powerful. They file it in order to shut you up.
The FOURTH THING to do in order to reduce the chances of being sued for libel is to turn the juicy news into a blind item. This is why gossip items on celebrities are published as blind items. The rule is – if others cannot guess the identity of the person being alluded to, then there is no libel. Any celebrity or politician who feels alluded to can only sue for libel if another person can come forward and credibly say he thought the item was only talking about that particular celebrity or politician, and no one else.
However, there is something else to remember about this. If you later write a piece that gives the identity of that person away, you can be sued. Because under Philippine law, one can be sued for libel based on your body of works and not just on one piece.
The FIFTH THING to remember in order to reduce the chances of being sued for libel is that you can be right about your facts but you can still be sued for libel if a person can allege malice behind it.
Malice means – did you have an evil motive or ill will for writing and publishing what you did?
For instance, malice can easily be attributed to a commentator who happens to have a relative who is a politician belonging to a rival camp.
The defence against the charge of malice is that the commentator was motivated to write what he did for the public good. That this was something the public needed to know about this man. That this was of pressing public concern.
This is what lawyers call “fair comment.”
Don’t wait for a libel suit to argue that what you did was “fair comment.”
You have to explain why it’s “fair comment” prominently in any news commentary that might invite a lawsuit.
When does a politician’s sexcapade become a subject of “fair comment”?
This is where the writer of a news commentary has to do some digging – to find out whether it has resulted in government contracts for the object of his desire; or whether the politician’s disclosed SALN is far below the value of the property he has given his mistress using a dummy company set up for that very purpose.
Another thing that lawyers say to avoid being slapped a defamation lawsuit is to only report libellous material that is “privileged”. I had a difficult time understanding that concept. It simply means that our laws recognize that there are certain “privileged occasions” when reporters and news commentators may freely report what is said even though this is libellous.
Privileged occasions cover congressional proceedings. This is the reason everyone can report word-for-word all the libellous things that the whistle-blowers have been saying about Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Other “privileged occasions” are court trials and some public proceedings of other government agencies. The rule we generally follow for press briefings and conferences is that reporters are free to report what the officials said. It is the officials who can be sued for libel, not the press that reports what they say accurately.
As part of this lecture, I have been asked to comment on the current state of news commentary in the Philippines.
Let me answer that by citing examples of what I consider good news commentaries. Jarius Bondoc of Philippine Star is one. He digs out facts and he patiently explains why it’s important for you to read his exposes.
Another is University of the Philippines economist professor Solita Monsod. She injects the personal with her arguments. She explains economic concepts.
I also like Cielito Habito because he bothers to explain economic concepts and relates them to what’s going on.
As for those I do not like, I might just tell you during the open forum.
Before I close let me share with you a thought that came to my mind as I went down the airplane to the Cebu airport terminal. I saw how grotty your terminal was and how you needed a new one pretty fast.
Like Mindanao, Cebu and other parts of central and southern Philippines have long been getting the short end of government attention.
Perhaps it is because the news outlets do not emphasize enough your point of view. When news breaks in Manila for instance, what is Cebu’s view on the matter? How does it impact you?
What developments in Cebu can Manila learn from?
As a reader in Manila, I would like to know more, for instance, how the Bangsamoro Basic Law would affect Cebu and central Philippines. How an anti-dynasty law would be viewed here.
These and many more can be topics for news commentaries that only those from Cebu can write.