How live-streamed and print coverage reported the story
At a glance:
- CMFR: ‘egregious error’
- Social media: reporting took police line hook, line and all
- Reporters: Fair and all-sided
- What KBP standards require
A GROUP of Cebu-based journalists covered, live, a police-assisted operation on Feb. 15, 2021, which led to the “rescue” of teenage Lumad students and the arrest of their adult companions from a retreat house within the campus of the University of San Carlos in Barangay, Talamban, Cebu City.
The coverage set off a public debate on whether it was a rescue or a raid and whether the media botched the coverage of a sensitive issue.
Media was caught or got itself into the crossfire between the rescuers/raiders (the police, military, and some parents) one side, and the advocates for the Lumads’ safety and welfare, including USC and the SVD community that extended help, and some parents, on the other.
Equally disturbing, the controversy may have uncovered once again a weak spot in media’s armor: taking sides when it must be neutral and failing to put context into a sensitive story, as incidents related to the Lumad people in Mindanao have shown.
The reporters who live-streamed the rescue/raid were criticized.
CMFR or Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility based in Manila reported on Feb. 26 in its website a critique of the coverage, headlined thus:
Cebu media take part in dubious police rescue. The reporters’ coverage, it said, resulted in “an uncritical coverage that was assured by accepting the police invitation for them to join the convoy.”
“Jeers,” the CMFR item said, to the journalists “for joining the police team in the supposed rescue…”
"The reports by CDN Digital, The Freeman, Superbalita Cebu, and other Cebu-based media organizations on their Facebook accounts showed, live, the Lumad students’ refusal to go with the police, who were nevertheless forcibly carried away and taken into custody.
"The reporters involved described the event exactly as the police called it: 'a rescue' operation. Their failure to ask whether the police had the required warrants and coordinated with university authorities was indication enough that they had compromised their independence, and thus had identified themselves with the police and the consequent violations of human rights and due process.
“Later coverage included the reports on the press conferences and statements by other sources, the USC and church officials, the networks of indigenous peoples, and the CHR who all said that the students were sheltered by the archdiocese of Cebu as part of a bakwit (evacuee) school program – as police continued to claim that they were asked by the students’ parents to 'rescue' the children from being indoctrinated with communist ideology."
“There was no reference to the misrepresentation in (the reporters’ initial accounts on Facebook, or any indication that they had verified police claims and corrected their failure to provide any context to the incident. Anyone who caught the live coverage of the raid-like operation would have seen only the police version.
“When they make such an egregious error, the media should at least be ready to correct the error and set the record straight. The tendency of some reporters to cozy up to the police for privileged access to information has a price: they end up telling the story as their patrons prefer."
Swallowed the police line
Karlon Rama, a former newspaper reporter who is now a trainer in conflict-sensitive journalism and teaches journalism at USC, was among those who weighed in as the controversy spilled over to social media.
In a phone interview, says he understands why the Facebook Live coverage would be considered “problematic” by media monitors like CMFR. He noted that the live reports did seem to reflect the police’s narrative “hook, line, and sinker.’
He cited one particular FB Live report. The reporter had repeatedly conveyed to his audience that the authorities were in “a rescue operation.” The reporter’s description, Rama said, should have included such qualifiers as “reportedly” and “allegedly” to indicate that facts are still being gathered.
Before CMFR published its “jeer,” the journalists who covered the operation attracted a swarm of stinging criticisms on Facebook and Twitter, many of which described the news coverage as biased.
Coverage scope, effort
CFBJ or Cebu Federation of Beat Journalists released on Feb. 18, 2021 its position on the controversy, saying the journalists, majority of whom are members of DEPP, the Defense-PNP press corps., “exerted so much effort to cover the incident from every conceivable angle.”
Officials from the concerned university, government agencies were interviewed, CFBJ said. “Some parents, the Lumad children themselves, as well as the tribe leaders were also interviewed.”
“If there was an intention to favor one party, why would these same media people accused of being biased, attend a press briefing called by the group accused of committing irregularities?” CFBJ said.
One of the journalists who covered the Feb. 15 operation was Arnold Bustamante, a veteran broadcast journalist for radio DyHP of RMN. Bustamante, who also writes for the Cebuano-Bisaya newspaper Superbalita [Cebu] as correspondent, is the president of CFBJ and DEPP.
He covered the event for DyHP, his main employer. His fellow Superbalita correspondent Benjie Talisic aired the rescue/raid operation live over Superbalita’s Facebook page.
Told about CMFR’s rating of the news coverage, Bustamante said he respects its opinion but disputed its criticism, saying the local reporting was unbiased.
“Dili tinuod nga version lang sa pulis ang mi patigbabaw kay mas daghan among interview sa Lumad nga si Datu Bay-ao nga samtang gipang-aswat kadtong mga teacher. Siya ang among giinterview sulod sa lima ngadto sa siyete minutos,” Bustamante said.
(It is not true that we gave more weight to the police version because we spent more time with Datu Bay-ao while the teachers were bodily carried away. We interviewed for about five to seven minutes.)
Datu Bay-ao is Benito Bay-ao, one of the two Lumad elders who are facing charges along with two teachers and three Lumad students.
Bustamanate’s colleague Talisic said his coverage was not biased, saying all the angles of the story were delivered to the public,
“Tanang anggulo sa storya napadayag ug napaabot sa publiko,” he insisted.
(All angles of the story were expressed and brought to the public’s attention.)
He said they also tried to interview Chad Booc, one of the arrested teachers but Booc did not say anything. He also interviewed some Lumad students and their parents after his first report.
“Para kanako, patas ang pagkuha sa mga pamayahag sa matag habig (For me, getting the statements of both sides was fair).”
CJJ Magazine reviewed some videos of the Facebook Live coverage. Talisic’s 24-minute Facebook Live coverage is preserved on Superbalita Cebu’s Facebook page.
During the first few seconds, Talisic is on board a police vehicle. As he steps out, his video captures images of police operatives in combat gear. The reporter’s coughing is heard. As he follows the police, he mentions to the FB audience, “Rescue operation ni, mga Ka Super.”
A few minutes later, the rescuers/raiders arrive at the retreat house. Talisic’s camera is trained on the floor to avoid capturing the faces of the minors.
During this time, there is less narration from Talisic. He does not explain the nature of the operation. A woman who identifies herself as a social worker tells the Lumad students to stay calm.
Talisic asks a man in a red shirt but the latter ignores him. The camera proceeds to capture police presence in the room.
Someone is later heard reminding everyone to observe social distancing. A crying, presumably from one of the Lumad students, is heard.
The faces of some students appear.
Past the nine-minute mark, Talisic’s live coverage catches the images of police dragging a man in white shirt outside of the retreat house. Some Lumads start shouting. (The man was later identified as Moddie Mansumoy-at, one of the Lumad students.)
Talisic’s video then records the police arresting another young man in a red shirt. (He was later identified as Jomar Binag, also a Lumad student. He was the same person Talisic had approached in the early part of the coverage.)
Past the 11-minute mark, Talisic joins another reporter interviewing a man. The man identifies himself as Benito Bay-ao, a tribe elder, and explains the presence of Lumad students in the retreat house.
Talisic asks why the Lumads asked help from the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Bay-ao denies they are being used by communists.
Bustamante, who’s wearing a face mask, asks Bay-ao if the group had the consent from parents to take their children to Cebu. The tribe elder replies that they secured consent from the parents. The police arrests Bay-ao after the interview.
Talisic approaches a police officer holding a sack and asks about the seized “evidence.” No answer. Talisic enters the room once more. The video shows a dog on a leash, to which the reporter says: “Ikaw na lang usa diha, ha. Manglakaw na mi. (You will be left alone now. We will leave.)”
Afterwards, the video turns to capture Talisic in face mask saying the outro spiel:
“Malamposon ang pag-rescue sa mga minors.”
(The rescue of the minors was a success). “
Malamposon ang pag-rescue sa mga minors.
In a separate interview, Guam Logroño, a DySS Super Radyo reporter and Superbalita Cebu correspondent, told CJJ he also video-recorded the commotion at the retreat house, which he aired over his personal Facebook page.
He said the commotion erupted when some Lumad students whose parents did not come with the social workers initially refused to leave the retreat house.
Logroño agreed with Talisic and Bustamante that their live reporting was not biased. “We gave them time to air their side,” Logroño said in Cebuano.
CJJ Magazine reviewed Logroño’s two videos of the live coverage on his Facebook account under the alias “Tikrit Gathas.” The first video is over 17 minutes long.
Walking towards the retreat house, Logroño narrates that the operation is a “rescue” of Lumad children who were “missing.”
The caption on his Facebook reads:
“Ang rescue operation sa kapulisan sa mga minor de edad nga Lumad gikan sa Davao del Norte, sulod sa USC-TALAMBAN Campus.”
(The rescue operation by police of Lumad minors from Davao del Norte, inside the USC Talamban Campus) ”
Logroño reports, without citing sources, that the children were used by the militant groups.
He enters the room and records the scene: the police officers bodily taking the man in white shirt outside the room, along with some Lumad students who were also being carried off.
Logroño is later heard reporting to his main media unit DySS, saying the Lumad students were “used by left-leaning groups as front by the communist partisans.” Again, without sourcing or qualifying it as an accusation.
He then joins other reporters in interviewing tribe elder Bay-ao.
The second video, over seven minutes long, bears this caption:
“TAN-AWA Kalooy sa mga Lumad gigamit sa mga militanting grupo. Narescue sa kapulisan sulod sa USC-TALAMBAN Campus karong buntag.”
(See the pitiful plight of the Lumads used by militant groups. Police rescued them inside teh USC TALAMBAN Campus this morning.)
Tan-awa kalooy sa mga Lumad gigamit sa mga militanting grupo. Narescue sa kapulisan sulod sa USC-Talamban Campus karong buntag.
The clip contains the reporters’ interviews with Mansumoy-at and Binag.
During the interview, Mansumoy-at admits they had joined rallies organized by militant groups before the pandemic. Logroño later asks Binag if he knew he was used by the militant groups. Binag replies he only wanted to continue his education.
The interview is cut short by the police who take the arrested persons to their vehicles.
These are the links of the other Facebook Live reports:
Superbalita’s print report
The whole space of page 3 of Superbalita Cebu’s Feb. 16, 2021 issue contains the printed story of the coverage done by Bustamante, Talisic, and Logroño.
The story contains 38 paragraphs. It leads off with the information that three criminal complaints will be filed against seven individuals who were caught by the police during the “rescue.”
The second paragraph states that these persons were the ones who brought the minors to Cebu without permission from the children’s parents. The succeeding paragraph lists the names of the arrested individuals, including Bay-ao.
The specific violations that the arrested persons will be charged with come in at the 14th paragraph: kidnapping with serious illegal detention, and violations of Republic Act 9208 (Anti-Human Trafficking Persons Act of 2003) and Republic Act 7610 (Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act).
The three complaints were lodged before the Davao del Norte Provincial Prosecutors’ Office on Feb. 17, 2021. The inquest proceedings were held via Zoom video conferencing app at the Police Regional Office 7. Police Regional Office 7 assisted DSWD 7 and municipal social welfare of Talaingod, Davao del Norte after parents of six of the 19 Lumad students had sought help for the return of their children.
Bay-ao’s statement comes in the 20th paragraph, near the story’s tail-end. He claims that the Lumad students arrived in Cebu in 2018 because of the government’s repression of the indigenous peoples, one of which was the DepEd’s order to close all Lumad schools. The Lumad elder says they were supposed to return in April 2020 but they were stuck in Cebu because of the pandemic.
The Superbalita Cebu story devotes six paragraphs to Bay-ao. It has no statements from other arrested persons.
Nine paragraphs mention the joint statement of the Archdiocese of Cebu, USC, and its owner Societas Verbi Divini (SVD).
They helped the Lumads after they were stranded in Cebu City during the start of lockdowns in March 2020. SVD allowed the Lumad students and their adult companions to stay at its retreat house inside the USC Talamban campus because it supports the Archdiocese’s Commission on Social Advocacies, which also helps the “Bakwit” school program of Save Our Schools Network.
There was a plan for the Lumad children and adults to return to Mindanao after the community quarantine restrictions were relaxed, they said.
Five paragraphs cover the statement of PRO 7 Director Ronnie Montejo, who said that in 2018 the Lumad students were brought to “Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center,” which he said is run by communist adherents. But he offered no evidence.
A brief interview of an unnamed mother of one of the “rescued” Lumad students surfaces in the seventh paragraph with her expressing her joy of seeing her son again.
The parents learned about their children’s location in Cebu after the first batch returned to their place.
The rest of the story carries the side of a social worker, who said social welfare officers need police assistance for their safety during the “rescue.”
SunStar, Freeman print versions
Superbalita Cebu’s sister publication SunStar Cebu runs the story on page 4. The English print version only has 16 paragraphs and the story is translated from the Cebuano-Bisaya story written by Bustamante.
The Freeman print edition runs the story as its banner story on page one. Its Feb. 16 issue banner story has 39 paragraphs with more sources—Bay-ao, an unidentified woman who represented the Lumad students’ tribe, Montejo, SVD and USC, Beverly Gofredo of Save Our Schools Network and lawyer King Anthony Perez of National Union of People’s Lawyers Cebu Chapter. The story was written by Iris Hazel Mascardo.
Banat News, the Cebuano-language sister publication of The Freeman, ran the story on Page 2. The story by Mascardo presents both sides. However, the Banat News version is shorter, for lack of space or editing policy.
CDN Digital published its story online at at 9:19 p.m. on Feb. 15, hours after the rescue.
It carries the statements of Montejo, SVD priests, USC officials, and Save Our Schools Network. The story was written by multimedia reporters Morexette Marie Erram and Pegeen Maisie Sararana.
Former journalist and academician Rama said there was no problem when the coverage of the “rescue” came out on print. By this time, he added, the reporters had had ample time to arrange, verify, and cross-check the facts, as well as get additional details.
This is not to say that the same cannot be done on live coverages.
In fact, he added, many radio broadcasters routinely perform live coverage of events without issue, using the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) Broadcast Code — which has rules on sourcing, separating opinion from the use, and the need for context — as a guide.
The KBP’s Broadcast Code provides, among others, that:
- “News reports shall be fair, factual, and objective (Section 3.a.);
- “Side comments expressing personal opinions while news items are being reported or delivered are prohibited to prevent the listener from mistaking opinion for news (Section 3.c.);
- “Only news that can be attributed to a source shall be aired. When a source cannot be identified by name, the reason for this should be made clear in the news report (Section 4.b.);
- “Interviews must be presented in the proper context. Replies of interviewees to questions must not be edited or editorialized in a way that would distort their intended meaning (Section 6.a.).”
Reporting in social media
Local newsrooms don’t have written policy about reporters, correspondents, and editors personally engaged in social media, that is, using their real name or an alias and not disclosing or identifying their news organization.
Guidelines if any are mostly by word of mouth and handled on a case-to-case basis. The basic rule on fairness and accuracy, however, is often cited like their mantra, especially when media performance is questioned. The get-both-sides-of-the-coin spiel is commonly preached, usually as a shield against criticism.
Asked if CFBJ would lead in advocating for social media guidelines for the beat reporters in Cebu, Bustamante said there is no need. He said reporters already know how to handle the news like rescue operations.
“Our reporters in Cebu are already professionals, and they are factual and there is no opinion in describing the incident. Nahibaw na ang mga reporter unsay dili ipakita ug ang ipakita sa live video. (They already know what not to show and what to show on live video.)”
He declined to talk about the behavior of reporters when they tag along with police or military personnel in an operation and how not to sound like they were parroting the law enforcers’ line. Which could be what the uproar over the live-streamed reports was mostly about.