Social Responsibility in Media

(After the bus hostage tragedy on August 23, 2010 at Quirino Grandstand, Manila)

In judging the event’s positivity or negativity, one cannot but succumb to bias, the one important precept in the theory in question (the theory of social responsibility in media). But I am not a journalist, thus objectivity should not be my utmost concern. I should be able to freely express; yet there’s a forceful tug that strays me from fully enjoying this right as exhibited by the people who have the same resources to air theirs.

This invisible controlling voice is the social responsibility, deeply rooted to conscience arising from the power to influence other people through media text. It pushes one to strive for accuracy, truth, and fairness. But in all honesty, can we ever say that what is written or said is fully without prejudice? When we consider that everything is relative, that meanings are only halfway transmitted, that no human purpose is free from selfish desires, social responsibility in media seems to be impossibly utopian.

On the producer’s side, there are readership and ratings, the anticipation and response to what the public wants, the instinct of satisfying curiosity, and the dictates of superiors. When you are at that spot, isn’t the itch to cover the hot proceedings stronger than the ethical voice to censor your output? Will you ever have time to rationally consider the consequences of your report to the hostages? When the police were trying to arrest the hostage-taker’s brother, isn’t your instinct to make it seen so that no police brutality or discrepancies of arrest occurs? The networks have extended their usual news programs and pushed back the soaps to make room for the breaking news. Apparently their utmost concern is to divulge as much as possible because it would be foolish to let the other networks enjoy the high ratings. Or is it because they felt they were professionally obligated to cover it extensively?

When we consider the consumer’s side, the chicken-and-egg problem once again arises. The producers are only responding to the public’s desire to know. When journalism thrives in business, “consumer is king”. But who really does have the power? At this point I’ll exercise my bias and say it is the media. In judging their actions during the tragedy, I’ll also say they used their power irresponsibly.

That is not to put blame on them because clearly the authorities were disappointing; it is just to declare that the networks could have done better, and only in this realization will we learn from this mistake. It is no excuse for reporters not to know the protocols in handling that kind of situation; the social responsibility primarily pursues the truth. Did they honestly think the truth could have been divulged in interviewing the criminal’s brother, who was obviously dismayed, fearful, and hysterical? What truth could have been uncovered in asking the police officers who said nothing but unconfirmed goings-on? It was known early on that the bus had a television; they should have been conscious of that fact all throughout their reportage. At the heat of the crime, some reporters, even the reputable ones, conveyed an atmosphere of being at the heart of the action, instead of standing in the distance to be the observer. The instinctual behaviour of reporters was largely sensational, rather than objective.

Meanwhile, I witnessed the interactive websites balloon with users’ comments as the event progressed. The police were ridiculed, the whole Filipino nation was scorned; capital letters, derogatory words and exclamation points were exchanged. Unsurprisingly, social responsibility was the least of the participants’ concerns. It is not journalism per se, but the power and scope is not different. The exchange of comments at the bottom of news reports becomes part of the news itself. When we see that the precepts of social responsibility are almost nonexistent in the ordinary people who have access to the technology, it brings to question the applicability of the theory to mainstream journalism. With the power of publication transferred to the hands of the common people through blogs and highly-interactive media, should it be inferred that social responsibility expected of our journalists has lesser bearing in the modern world? If one person can rant about an issue through a widely read blog, why can’t the journalist be more participative in the news? If socially responsible reactions can be posted side-by-side with an obviously biased report, will it make a difference if a responsible report is seen together with irresponsible users’ posts? Do the words of a journalist have more influence than those in the comments, even if both are consumed together?

If it is easier for the ordinary person to take a side and form his own opinions and biased meanings rather than to recognize social responsibility in the media, then it brings to question the ultimate pursuit of the theory that is democracy – equal representation and providing equal avenues for expression that places trust in each person. It does not take the skills of a competent sociologist to say that this trust is not being returned favorably. Thus it is best to have bodies that will impose the responsibility, rather than leaving it to the public who does not know or exercise it. The conclusion answers the questions raised in the previous paragraph. There is a reason why the interactive news has a bold line that delineates between the actual news and the reactions – that by the power vested to their professions, journalists should know better.

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