Media’s role in Philippine society undermines rather than strengthens the process of seeking truth

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According to Chay Hofileña, Director of “citizen journalism” for “social news network” site Rappler.com journalists are “neither lawyers nor judges” and are, from the depths of their DNA she claims, hardwired to “look for patterns, inconsistencies and lies, and to point those out”. This, it seems, forms the kernel around which she launches into a mini tome on her view of how the role of the media in society in general is to “connect the dots”.

Is it just me, or did Hofileña get it all the other way around? Didn’t she just attribute to “journalists” what are really things that judges and lawyers do do as part of a system that governs just that?

Lawyers after all are trained thinkers. They build cases from the ground up using the scientific method. They form a hypothesis that guides their investigation and a careful evaluation of the data that is the outcome of that investigation. They then piece together the information that is an output of that evaluation to form a conclusion that either validates or invalidates the hypothesis that guided their earlier efforts.

A key component of that effort to critically evaluate and arrive at sound conclusions is to follow a process that has built-in mechanisms that tease out inconsistencies, filter out noise, and encourage the identification of patterns. It’s called the legal system. And there is a reason why lawyers train for many years before they can be licensed members of that system — because working within the system requires a way of thinking and problem solving not readily grasped by the untrained. I summarised in an earlier article how the legal system pretty much mirrors the scientific method, key aspects of which include…

(1) formulation of a hypothesis – analogous to the charges brought forth by the prosecution;

(2) collection and validation of empirical data – analogous to criminal investigation and verification of the evidence that is its outcome;

(3) presentation of findings and subjection to peer review – analogous to the court trial itself; where evidence and arguments coming from both sides are presented and evaluated; and,

(4) formation of a conclusion – analogous to rendering of final judgment.

In the modern application of the scientific method, popularity plays no part in evaluating all the input into the process undertaken.

In a criminal investigation and trial (which, admittedly, the impeachment proceedings are not), the standards of rigour are clear. In advanced societies, the exclusion of the media from the process of arriving at the truth is very palpable. On top of and exercising full jurisdiction and control of the investigation and trial of the accused are the police and court officials respectively. The charges laid are, in principle, a direct result of an investigation controlled by the police, and the verdict issued is, in principle, a direct outcome of the court proceedings officiated by a judge. All involved in the process — prosecution, defense, witnesses, and jury — are under strict orders not to come in contact with the media.

Of course the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona is, as has been widely accepted to be, a political exercise. As such, participation of the media — and the noise this participation brings into the exercise — is tolerated.

That this is so does not in any way make the nature of the role of the media any closer to what Hofileña would like to imagine it to be. This has been plainly evident from the beginning — in the way those who seek to maintain sobriety in the manner with which the Chief Justice is tried have had to undertake efforts to mitigate the effect of media’s participation in the exercise. In short, rather than make more sound the process of seeking the truth in this trial, the media’s contribution to the exercise undermines it. Efforts to maintain the order and soundness of the process were ones that aimed primarily to exclude the media rather than include it.

Funnily, Hofileña’s assertion that the role of a “journalist” covering the trial can be likened to an “academic” who similarly…

[…] has done extensive research, spent long hours poring over documents or interviewing insiders and people on the ground with intimate knowledge of details related to the articles of impeachment […]

…to earn the distinction of being regarded as an “expert” in that field contradicts what she later writes; that,

Many times, journalists come face to face with a lethargic public, too tired or lazy to do the math, or simply apathetic. Then it becomes the role of journalists to move them to action by shaking them with solid information that will either enrage them or even inspire them.

On the contrary, no real academic would in her right mind rely on appeals to emotion to test, validate, and propagate her hypothesis. If that is the way knowledge progressed, then we would still believe that the sun revolved around the Earth today.

Indeed, as history has so far shown, it is precisely this tired, lazy, and apathetic public that had all too easily succumbed to the misguided rage and vacuous inspiration elicited by the holy “information” shoved into their gaping mouths by the Philippine media. That the most unqualified among the candidates who aspired to be President of our sad Republic back in 2010 now sits in Malacañang is a testament to this pathetic reality.

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