Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Community journalism

A transplanted journalist from San Diego recently wrote in his column in one of Toronto’s Filipino community newspapers that he thought “coverage of the Filipino community in the Greater Toronto Area is wanting in depth and substance.” The fault he said did not lie with the newspapers or their publishers but in the community’s desire for “flimsy coverage where they see only the fun and content side of their neighbourhood and friends.”

His hopes were to bring to Toronto his 16 years of experience in community journalism in San Diego with emphasis on adversarial investigative reporting. In other words, he plans to adopt the same journalistic perspective that is more skeptical in coverage rather than playing favourites. Reporting that focuses on exposing rogues in the community he says is his kind of journalism.

Though brash and quite audacious, however, this newsman’s 16 years of experience in San Diego pale in comparison with his now-adopted Toronto broadsheet which has been serving Toronto’s community since 1978, and with another equally perceptive paper which has been publishing for more than 21 years. Both papers were established by experienced journalists in the Philippines who brought with them a keen sense for news that the community ought to know.
A proliferation of Filipino community newspapers in Toronto. Photo by Romeo P.
Marquez. Click link to view
 "Tips From Bob Woodward on Investigative Journalism," as Woodward (half of
the famous duo who reported on the Watergate scandal) explains the three ways
journalists get their information and his comments on the future of in-depth
reporting in the digital age.
Investigative journalism is simply not about exposing the bad apples in the community. It is also about how to present news stories to help shape perceptions of the future of our community. It’s not enough to disrobe the crooks, scammers or swindlers but equally just as important to write stories that uncover the roots of injustice and unfairness in our society as a whole.

Take for example the aforementioned writer/columnist’s take on the allegations of irregularity in the running of beauty pageants by a certain community organization and his apparent single-minded focus on suspicions of wrongdoing. This not the true and ethical type of investigative reporting. It’s more like “gotcha” journalism. Putting a person on the defensive and casting unfounded suspicions can scare anyone to the point of yielding to pressure and owning up to something which he or she wasn’t responsible for in the first place. This is also a characteristic of the adversarial process that is most common in our legal system.

Granted investigative journalists must be unafraid and dog-minded in their pursuits, however, they must also ferret out the facts from painstaking enquiry—which involves gathering evidence from interviews, documents, records, proofs and intense paper work. Not simply from asking questions during a press conference and then to be content with making allegations of wrongdoing based on a few quick Q&As. This aforementioned writer/journalist did not embark on doing any of the fact-checking actions required of a professional investigative journalist. His stories came out merely from the oral proceedings of a press conference. This is far from the responsible journalism required of a real news gatherer: to write stories that could help shape or influence public opinion based on sufficient verification of facts or information. It is not enough to undress a scammer, one must also bear in mind the protection of those who are innocent.

In addition, a committed investigative journalist would go beyond allegations of financial wrongdoings of the pageant organizers. He or she would also question why the community needs to perpetuate values that promote a shameless subculture of holding beauty pageants, and whether they represent the best of our Filipino culture. In the final analysis, it is much more important for a journalist to influence the making of social change that will benefit the community as a whole, especially if this concerns promoting and preserving our values and traditions as a people.

Another recent example of so-called investigated journalistic work this so-called writer was his reportage on the protest held by Toronto supporters of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) against China’s bullying tactics in the South China Sea dispute that involves the Philippines’ territorial claims to the Scarborough Shoal and to the Spratly Islands. By focusing his story more on the small turnout of protesters and describing it as “dull,” and therefore almost inconsequential, he made the protesters look even more pathetic by describing their excitement when the Toronto-based Chinese press arrived and the former obligingly posed for what he called “Kodak moments.” Instead of analyzing the futility of the protest from the perspective of mobilizing the community for political or social causes, this “investigative” writer conveniently focused on the obvious (small turnout) and sidestepped the bigger substantive issue of whether our Filipino folks in Toronto have fully grasped the arguments raised by China and the Philippines to support their respective claims.

Who then should be faulted with this kind of “adversarial” reporting?

Not the Filipino community who only wanted to read “flimsy coverage,” as this writer claimed. How can your community be responsible for the poor quality of journalism being catered to them? They do not report and analyze the news. All our local Filipinos newspapers in Toronto are free and our folks don’t pay to get their copies, so it seems rather disingenuous to blame them for influencing the type of news and stories they want to hear or read. Our local publishers are not selling the news to a segmented market of readers who would prefer to read only entertainment or see their photos plastered on the pages of community tabloids or stories with a particular slant that interests them.

Toronto is swamped with about 15 or so Filipino community newspapers. Obviously, it is a thriving business even if publishers compete for the same pool of advertisers. It’s also an indication of our community’s hunger and craving for news and stories, not just about what’s happening in the community but also in the home country as well. It really matters not if stories from the Philippines are reprints because they could be the first time that these stories are told to our folks in the community. The mainstream media rarely cover our community and stories from our home country while newspapers published in the Philippines are scarce in a foreign city if not unavailable most of the time.

One community newspaper, The Philippine Reporter, publishes reprints of opinions and critical observations of Filipino writers at home on many social and political issues which would never be available to our Toronto community if not through the dedication of this paper to bring them here. In addition to the paper’s own reportage on matters affecting migrants, human rights and social justice issues, the views and commentaries of our Filipino minds at home bring insights on the real causes of most of the issues that affect our community in Toronto. In many ways, our local issues in Toronto are also interconnected with issues at home and could be better understood if backstopped by firsthand analyses of our observers at home.

A culture of impunity in which only a handful of journalists' killers has
been penalized encourages more killings. Photo courtesy of cmfrphilippines.
No one has a monopoly of investigative journalism, certainly not by this former San Diego newspaperman. Substance and depth in news reporting is not achieved merely by exposing the crooks or shenanigans going on in our community. Exposé reporting on a wrongdoing for the sake of public indictment can sometimes denigrate into muckraking journalism, especially if ethics or expectations of fairness are ignored or taken very lightly.

In the final analysis, the true journalist has the responsibility to observe his or her written or unwritten code of ethics. Revealing scandals, infringement of laws or social morals is never easy. The principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fair play, and public accountability must be deeply ingrained in the mind and soul of the journalist.

As one freelance writer once said, “Investigative reporting uses objectively true material—that is, facts that any reasonable observer would agree are true—toward the subjective goal of reforming the world. That is not a license to lie in a good cause. It is a responsibility, to learn the truth so that the world can change.”

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