In journalism's name

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag - The Freeman

I am appalled by the way some journalists are squirming under fire. I have always believed that for a profession that can sometimes be so quick to find fault and bear so hard on its targets, its practitioners should not have a soft underbelly themselves. No one who makes journalism a career should be under the impression that it is a walk in the park because it is not.

Veteran journalists who have waged great personal battles in pursuit of the story have long accepted the fact that if you can dish it out, you should be able to take it in. If your principles do not allow you to accept working under such trying and confining parameters, then maybe you have chosen the wrong career path. Short of being killed or gagged, real journalists can take most of everything else as part of the hazards of the job.

Sadly treading a path headed in the other direction, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines recently came out with an open letter on behalf of two Reuters reporters whose damning articles about President Duterte have made them targets for cyberbullying by alleged Duterte supporters. I do not dispute the fact that it is no fun to be threatened. But I disagree with the sweeping accusation about Duterte supporters.

Question - by what means did the NUJP come to the conclusion that the cyberbullying was carried out by Duterte supporters? Did it bother to check out each and every threatening post against the two journalists? It is easy to claim the threats came from Duterte supporters by the mere tenor of the posts. But without even the slightest verification, all it amounts to is shoddy journalism.

I have been for nearly 20 years a Reuters stringer myself and I have never given that venerable British news agency any trouble with my reporting. Why? Because I made it both a personal and professional principle to validate each story I filed if it happens to have some controversial comment in it. That way I do not get accused of having misquoted anyone.

Before I end an interview, for instance, I always tell my interviewee that sir, or maam, this is what you said. That way I give both ourselves the chance to be clear on certain things. In the end, my interviewee never gets misquoted, and I always get my story right. The best thing I ever learned in my nearly 20 years as a Reuters stringer covering Cebu was this: Being first is never as fulfilling as being right. If I can have both, that is already a bonus.

Reporters for news agencies or news organizations that carry on 24-hour operations are always driven by what they tell themselves - that there is always a deadline every minute somewhere in the world and therefore it pays to always be first. I never allowed that to dictate my pursuit of a story. To me, nothing beats being right all the time.

I am not saying that the two Reuters reporters being blindly defended by NUJP erred in their reports on certain Duterte comments. But they found themselves in a position where it has become their word against Duterte's because they apparently did not bother to do as I always did. Finding the Duterte comments controversial, they rushed to file their story, hoping to make it first, and driven by visions of what the headlines would scream.

But it would not have cost them anything had they tarried a bit longer and asked Duterte again if he truly meant what he said. That would have left no room for ambiguity to the story. And the two reporters would not have gotten caught in its vicious aftermath. As to the bullying and threats, while it is no fun to be on their receiving end, the two reporters might take comfort in knowing it doesn't get any less easier if Duterte supporters had nothing to do with the threats and bullying.

Anonymity makes the Internet a dangerous place. It gives many a distorted sense of pleasure in being unknown. One gets braver and more self-righteous when faceless and nameless. Lack of accountability breeds its own creepy characters. But the shortcomings of cyberspace is no excuse for a profession steeped in traditions of truth, clarity and thoroughness to take shortcuts. Journalists do not pick fights. When attacked, they strive to become even better.


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