It is a multi-faceted and continuing story, with many chances of disclosing, explaining, and correcting in other news cycles. The uproar must tell us that many people still expect their news media of choice to be accurate and fair – or they just love to gripe about things that look bad.

[One] THE COMPLAINT. Even as the criticism of the Manila-based CMFR or Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, in its website, was specific, the negative comments from netizens in social media were mostly sweeping, generalized.

CMFR named the “erring” news media outfits (CDN, Freeman, Superbalita) but used the phrase “other Cebu-based media” to cover news outlets that it did not name. CMFR listed the alleged sins: (a) they were “uncritical” and didn’t question about warrant of arrest and coordination with USC officials; (b) they “accepted” police version of the operation being one of “rescue” and not a raid; and (c) they didn’t make the correction in after-Day 1 stories.

Critical comments in social media lobbed the ready-to-use phrases such as “biased and unfair,” “wrong reporting,” and “government propaganda.” Shotgun blast from the hip.

[Two] LABELING IT AS RESCUE.  What apparently lit up the fuse in public opinion was the chyron on the screen and the remarks of the broadcasters covering on Facebook Live the incident in the USC Talamban campus. 

The text-based graphic occupying the bottom of the screen labeled the event as a ‘rescue’ operation.  At least two reporters annotating the event said that indeed it was (‘Rescue operation ni’; ‘Successful ang rescue operation’).

But the images of children crying out as they were carried out of the retreat house and adult companions being arrested told the public it was not.

It was both, as the facts learned after the event turned out to be:

[] It was a rescue from the perspective of the Department of Social Welfare and Development 7. Nineteen minors were “recovered” to be returned to their parents. The Police Regional Office 7 was supposedly asked by DSWD to assist the operation, which was purportedly set off by a request of the municipal social worker in Talaingod, Davao del Norte, who had interceded for the parents of seven of the minors found in the Bakwit School in Cebu. Those parents reportedly complained that the children were taken without parental consent for the Bakwit School here.

That version, disputed by Save Our Schools Network, supports the police claim. It was also their shield against the accusation that the arrest of seven other persons was unlawful; no warrant was needed because the alleged kidnapping of the minors was still happening during the “rescue.”

 [] It was also a raid or looked like a raid because of the arrests made, which locked up two tribe elders, two teachers, and three adult students. In such an operation, the police necessarily took the lead or looked like it was in charge.

The reporters in the live coverage, according to the critics, took only one side, the police-DSWD side, thus the public suspicion of bias and peddling police propaganda.  The rescue version tends to defend the police stance that they were just helping DSWD and in the course of helping caught crime suspects in the act, “en flagrante delicto.” 

[Three] MOSTLY IMAGES, FEW WORDS. CMFR blamed the “uncritical coverage” to the reporters’ act of joining the police-DSWD operation. A reporter can still watch a police activity without taking sides. And who says that his report has to be critical; it needs only to be factual.

A reporter can still watch a police activity without taking sides. And who says that his report has to be critical; it needs only to be factual.

Most FB Live news feeds, whether for a media outlet or for one’s personal wall, don’t require informed or researched off-camera information. Thus, one sees mostly images, hardly can one hear the reporter discuss intricacies of the tug-of-war between government and activists.

The reason is that the news correspondent, more often than not, does not have the background material for the event. Besides, his media outlet is interested mostly in the live images, not in the reporter’s verbalizing.

Context?  Maybe in the print version or in a subsequent explainer. But with depleted resources of many newsrooms, all they can send is someone who knows how to use the phone camera and transmit to the FB wall, not necessarily someone who can talk about a complex and sensitive issue as the displacement of Lumads from their homeland. 

No surprise that the reporters insist that they were being fair and accurate. They had snippets of views from the people within their reach: how could be biased?

[Four] JOINING RESCUE/RAID. There are pros and cons on the issue of reporters joining a police operation or, in extreme events,  being “embedded” in a military unit. Or, to expand it, in any government activity that puts the reporter’s safety or health at risk.

The danger to the reporter “cozying up” with the public official or employee is always there anyway, whether he’s covering  an event in the safety of a press-con at City Hall or Capitol or  swooping with police on a school retreat house, with the possibility of bullets flying.

It is a matter for his news director or editor to weigh pluses and minuses and decide.

Besides, the material filed – in this case, the images of the rescue/raid – is still controlled by the news desk: if it can’t be edited on real-time, correction or explanation may be done in the next news feed. Or, in the case of a personal post, the reporter can also rectify it with a new post.

The initial report said it was a rescue operation? The published story can be rectified as quickly as pushing buttons; the chryon or crawler can be changed in the next news bulletin. Print media has its own correction mechanism.

If the reporter takes sides at the cost of honest coverage, his news managers would just have to work harder in monitoring his material. There had been a few cases of law- enforcement reporters moonlighting as police “informer” or witness for a fee to seized-drugs inventory.   

[Five] MULTI-PHASED COVERAGE.  The FB Live news feed was just part of the coverage of the issue on Lumad students.

The Talamban rescue/raid broke the story in Cebu but the news had since spawned other side issues, including the role of USC and the SVDs, the participation of the Archdiocese of Cebu, the Bakwit program, the possible “exploitation” of the schooling of dislocated students by anti-government forces, reaction of the minors’ parents back in Davao, and the police-military response to the “threat” of communist recruitment of young people.

The mistake in the FB Live reports was serious but was it “egregious” as CMFR called it?  Bad but not “outstandingly bad,” as it was not deliberate and not something beyond correction.

More of a lapse of judgment of the persons holding the camera phone and saying a few words. That, and for the mislabeling, probably by someone back in the newsroom or the reporter himself putting the chyron on his post.

The mistake in the FB Live reports was serious but was it “egregious” as CMFR called it?  Bad but not “outstandingly bad,” as it was not deliberate and not something beyond correction.

And there were chances of correction, which many news outlets did, in the succeeding news cycles and other phases of the multi-angled story.

[Six] A SEGMENT OF MEDIA, ONE OF MANY NEWS CYCLES. The recent flap over media performance in Cebu highlights the common mistake of:

  •  Confusing a few live reports with the entire output of the news outlets; and,
  •  Tainting the coverage of the Lumad Bakwit issue with the lapses in the reporting on the Talamban rescue/raid.

That seems to be unfair to media but that has been mostly the case, even in the pre-digital media era. One mistake in a segment of media is the fault of all media.

[Seven] LOOKING UP TO NEWS MEDIA.  Expectations of traditional media are still high but they appear to be lopsided: people want their news media not to be biased even as they feast on bias in other platforms, to be accurate and right even as they condone falsehood elsewhere.