IN my journalism classes, I require my students to watch the movies ‘Shattered Glass’ and ‘Spotlight’ for them to distinguish real journalism from fiction or creative writing.
The movies are relevant in view of the spread of fake news, or what others call alternative facts, that make the life of journalists nowadays more difficult and complicated.
“Shattered Glass” is a 2003 movie based on the true story of a young hardworking journalist who fell from grace when it was found that 27 of 41 articles of his published in The New Republic were either partially or completely fabricated. Stephen Glass came up with interesting story ideas until he got what looked like a big scoop about “Hackers’ Haven” that eventually exposed his habit of concocting stories based on non-existent news sources.
“Spotlight” is a 2015 movie that was also based on a true story of how the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered a widespread and systemic child sex abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church. It showed the difficulties of persuading sources to speak up about what others considered as a taboo topic of sex abuse by priests.
While “Shattered Glass” is an example of how journalists should not do their job, “Spotlight” highlighted what it takes to be a responsible journalist.
After watching the movies, I ask students to write down their reflections. The usual realization is how serious the job of a journalist is, and how they should be discerning in order to distinguish fact from fiction, fake news and alternative facts from fact-based information.
Journalists are taught and trained to embrace the principles of objectivity and accuracy.
It is thus appalling when journalists share through their social media accounts fabricated news from dubious websites. They engage in disinformation instead of clarifying issues that may be muddling the minds of the public.
Alternative fact is falsehood. Biased reporting is partial falsehood. Deliberately spreading falsehood is deception.
The call of Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella to the media to not report fake and unsubstantiated news on the escalating tension in Marawi City is timely to reflect on what has been happening in the news media today.
The call came after it was reported that Maute militants, who had attempted to take control of Marawi City since last weekend, had attacked the Lanao del Sur Electric Cooperative (Lasureco).
“Given the gravity of the situation in Marawi City, we urge the public to remain calm and not to spread unverified or incomplete news items, even as we urge media practitioners not to report such items that can easily be misinterpreted or sensationalized,” Abella said.
But then, while the presidential spokesman’s well-meaning call was welcome, he should also remind his principal to be responsible as well in his statements and policy decisions.
On Wednesday last week, President Rodrigo Duterte explained that the beheading of the police chief of Malabang town in Lanao del Sur prompted him to declare martial law across Mindanao hours after the Maute militants was reported to have besieged Marawi City.
He said the police chief was stopped on Tuesday night at a checkpoint on his way home from work and killed by the militants on the spot. “They decapitated him then and there,” he said.
On Thursday, the police chief, Senior Inspector Romeo Enriquez, said he was still alive and was at the post he has occupied since two months ago.
There must have been a mix-up in the information that reached the President, or he got himself confused with several reports on hand.
It turned out that the officer Enriquez replaced as Malabang police chief, Senior Inspector Freddie Manuel Solar, was one of five soldiers and two police officers who were killed in clashes with the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute groups. Solar was shot, not beheaded, by the militants.
Solar, a graduate of the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) Class 2007, was outside Amai Pakpak Medical Center in a police car when the gunmen seized him and later shot him dead.
In that case, it was no less than Abella’s principal who erred in reporting, not the media that has often been blamed for sowing confusion through conflicting reports.
Abella’s call won’t fall on deaf ears if only the Palace churns out responsible, fact-based information.
It is not easy to teach students who aspire to become journalists when what they see, read, and hear are not consistent with what is taught to them in the classroom. They need “spotlights” to guide them to practice good journalism, and not examples that would leave them shattered about the role of journalists in society.