By Chit Estella
February 7, 2011
EXCEPT FOR the occasional typhoon and other disasters, when was the last time you saw a story on health, the environment, or education on the front page of your newspaper?
These are the stories that disappear quite literally into the inside pages, if not into oblivion. Under the barrage of politics, conflicts, and even crime—the so-called serious stories—those articles on the other aspects of daily life have practically disappeared.
This was not the case a few decades ago. To be sure, the education, health, and environment departments have always been considered as secondary beats. They were often assigned to fledgling reporters, who were usually female. One reporter would cover a cluster of these assignments, especially if their offices were located within short distance of each other.
Even so, wise and knowing editors respected these beats and never thought of assigning mediocre reporters to them. That was because the departments of health, education, science and technology, the environment, social work, and foreign affairs were not the kind of beats where stories just fell onto the laps of reporters. One had to do research, understand policies, interview obscure sources, observe slowly unfolding developments, and read a lot to be able to cover those beats with competence. And because those assignments usually involved complicated issues that needed explaining, the reporter must have an undoubted ability to write clearly and well. (The coverage of the Guimaras oil spill, assessed in this issue of PJR Reports, provides a stark lesson on preparing for an assignment not just physically and logistically but mentally as well.)
Some reporters stayed long enough in those beats to gain expertise and recognition. Thus, the venerable Alberto “Boots” Rous, for example, was regarded as THE health reporter of his time. Amando Doronila was said to have earned his spurs as a foreign affairs reporter. Many women who covered the education beat became editors of their newspapers.
To this day, the need for stories that illuminate rather than simply shock remains as compelling as ever. But so overwhelmed have we been by the fast-paced, the startling or even just the unusual, that we have overlooked the stuff that matter—those that change our lives in very important ways.
Most of the time, we don’t immediately see change or even hear of it until much of it is over and done. This was the case with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) whose leadership had undergone drastic changes in the past few months.
The story was a difficult one to write. Members of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility enjoyed a friendship (albeit in varying degrees) with the persons who figured in the PCIJ story. We can only hope that in coming up with the story on the PCIJ, proximity has not led to a lack of clarity in the way that a hand that is held close to one’s face makes one unable to see the fingers.
Dealing with media issues is always a tricky matter. The situation of the media in Palawan is one such example. Politics has become so embedded in the life of the press that even journalists find it hard to imagine one without the other. The process of disengaging the two would be long and arduous. Yet, it is a path that journalists must take.