Journalism and democracy

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MARIT STINUS-CABUGON

IT’S been 20 years since my first stint as an opinion columnist. I was very combative in those days and after three years I got fired because the owners of the local paper for which I wrote, were convinced that I was working for their political opponent. I was the talk of the town for a few days but the instant fame didn’t bring me back my job (I was writing five times a week). So much for being hard-hitting and fearless!

My late husband, Cerge Remonde, a veteran journalist, always reminded me that opinion, hard-hitting or not, should be based on facts. Facts are supposed to be straightforward, but often they aren’t. Sometimes we—as journalists or just ordinary citizens—get our facts wrong. We misread or misheard, weren’t paying attention, missed an important detail, forgot, overlooked, or misunderstood. We have our biases—that is human nature—and tend to downplay information that doesn’t support our position, while exaggerating the importance of details that confirm our point of view.

Well, human as it may be, a journalist should seek to control his or her biases. A good journalist should be like a good police investigator or a good scientist: We should look for the facts that could prove our theory, hypothesis or opinion, wrong. If we can’t find anything that could prove us wrong, no matter how much we look, then probably we are right. Critical thinking and a dose of skepticism are necessary tools in the quest for truth.

The advent of the fake news factory is a big—and unexpected— challenge to journalists. The fake news by itself is one thing; it’s worse when it is shared through websites that appear to be those of established news organizations such as ABS-CBN, Aljazeera, to mention a few, but are NOT. Only someone familiar with the authentic websites would notice the difference. The fake articles on the fake websites are often well-written but the story line is made up, like a Hollywood manuscript.


As on the real website of the particular news organization whose site is being imitated, links to other stories are posted making the fake site look credible. I don’t understand how these fake websites are allowed to exist considering that they use the names of legitimate, registered media organizations. They have no other purpose than to mislead the reading public.

I myself have fallen victim to fake news a few times – at least that I am aware of. This was when the fake news machinery was still in its infancy in the Philippines so it never occurred to me that anyone would deliberately fabricate and share fake stories. Now I know.

Fake news is an enemy of democracy because democracy is based on its individual citizens making informed decisions. Fake news is to democracy what the toxic, persistent organic pollutants are to the environment: They accumulate and are passed on until everything is contaminated. They travel the width and breadth of the earth and poison the minds of men, more so today due to the Internet in general, and social media in particular.

Journalists and media organizations have a very big responsibility acting as filters. This includes filtering the sources at all levels – for reporters, the people they interview, to opinion writers who may not have our own primary sources but rely on the news media and publications. We have to make a real effort in seeing through not only the fake news, but also propaganda and other distorted information deliberately released to the public, sometimes as part of ‘psy-war’ and meant not to inform, but to put a real or imagined enemy on the defensive. The effect is the same as with fake news: it undermines everyone’s ability to tell fact from fiction.

The way each one of us sees truth, of course, also depends on perspective. We agree that there is one God, but depending on our individual faith, we have different takes on how to live according to His will. In the same way as we respect each other’s religious beliefs we must also respect divergent opinions and interpretations of facts as diversity and pluralism characterize democracy. Eighty percent of Filipinos still believe that democracy works (Social Weather Station, 2nd quarter 2017 survey) but this faith may fade if democracy’s pillars are undermined.

Ultimately, the victim of fake news is not the person who falls for it, nor the person who was its object. No, the ultimate victim is our faith in the truth. With the continued spread of fake news, even the concerned citizen, journalist or not, who wants to stay informed, won’t know anymore what’s really going on in the world out there.

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