Of Velosos and ‘firing squad’ journalism

First published on Blogwatch

Errors in reportage are so common nowadays as speed and news saleability become the metrics of the news business. Most of these errors could be easy bygones because there is always a more recent and more hilarious one. But the recent series of ethical lapses by the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) on the Mary Jane Veloso issue is too brazen to be ignored, precisely because it victimized the victim on several counts and brought Philippine journalism to a new low. And unlike other newsroom blunders, PDI’s lapses are nothing close to being hilarious.

On April 29, the PDI ran a dramatic but erroneous banner “Death came before dawn”, referring to Filipino migrant worker Mary Jane Veloso who was scheduled for execution on the night of April 28. At the last minute though, Veloso got a last-minute reprieve from execution in Indonesia. PDI apparently “killed” Veloso as it put the paper to bed even as Inquirer.net came up with a story titled “Veloso execution stopped” with time stamp at 1:43 a.m. Among major broadsheets, it was only PDI which got the story wrong, although the Center for Media Freedom for Responsibility (CMFR) noted that other papers similarly used appeal to emotions for their heads during that day.

PDI issued a statement on its erroneous headline, saying it regrets the “aggravation this may have caused Mary Jane Veloso’s family.”

But the morning after Labor Day, the PDI published a story that carried a malicious and loaded headline that belittles the Veloso family: “Militants use Velosos in labor protest rallies.” The title clearly was an insult not just to progressive groups but to the Veloso family, which was insinuated as to allowing itself to be used by militant groups for propaganda purposes. Whether intentional or not, the effect of the title was that it reduced the issue of workers (low wages, contractualization) and of Veloso in particular into a mere propaganda stunt – despite being real issues. On the contrary, the head appealed to the taste of anti-“extreme Left” (as they would put it) middle class who would use any opportunity to discredit the militants. A reading of the body however will show that the bias in the title was not substantiated. In fact, the story quoted leaders of progressive groups linking the issues of migration and local jobs crisis.

By some sort of editorial prerogative, the title-story disconnect was made publishable, defying even one of the most basic rules in journalism.

PDI’s most recent journalistic lapse was far more tasteless and disgusting, to say the least. It published a story titled “Netizens: #Firing squad for Celia Veloso”, referring to the mother of Mary Jane who castigated the government’s inaction on the case during the Labor Day rally. The story framed Nanay Celia in the crosshairs of Twitter hate speech (that included “Pakshet”), with the addition of a Guyito cartoon to play up the loaded angle. But most of the “netizens” quoted in the story are actually non-existent (checked as of May 4, evening) if not with questionable online identities. Apparently the currently non-existent Twitter accounts were bots (presumably backed up by a well-oiled vested interest) which were programmed to make #FiringsquadforCeliaVeloso as trending topic.

Committing an ethical lapse and blindly falling into the “netizen trap” is one thing. But to incite archaic violence and fan animosity against an aggrieved party – which in this case is a poor mother of a migrant worker – is a far more serious offense that no media organization should go away with, in the same way that no perpetrator of journalist killings should go scot-free regardless of the victim’s reportage. PDI should be sensitive enough to discern that the Veloso case and the averse reactions of questionable netizens should not be dealt like a usual story on trending celebrities, politicians and mundane expressions. Nanay Celia and the Veloso family demand far more sensitivity and ethical considerations from the media, as they have had enough of pain and misery during the past five years and having no similar clout and means to air their reply as that of a politician or a celebrity. To put them in further aggravation with one-sided and unprofessional reportage constitutes the height of insensitivity.

By several indications, the ethical lapses fall squarely on the shoulders of the gatekeepers, the editors, who apparently applied their biases in the headlines with journalistic hubris. These editors have engaged in “firing squad” journalism versus the Velosos, putting the aggrieved party on the hot seat in the way that subjects them to public condemnation. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, they actually served to create dissonance in public opinion over the Mary Jane Veloso instead of helping the people fully grasp the issue. Those in power who have demonstrated criminal neglect of Mary Jane Veloso over the past five years are the only ones benefitting from kind of character assassination against the Velosos. At a certain point, discussions are shifting from tracing government’s accountability to defining Veloso’s relations with the Left which is actually irrelevant to the rigor by which #SaveMaryJaneVeloso should be pursued. It should be made clear yet again that Veloso is a victim.

The consequence of the Veloso bashing, which was partly fuelled by the mainstream media, is that the issue of forced migration, state neglect of migrant workers, and death penalty have been downsized into a purely personal frame of ungratefulness to the President. This is certainly not the kind of trajectory which everyone across the globe and across the social strata who supported #SaveMaryJaneVeloso yearned for.

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