That time when journos got to be ‘biased’

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

Pope Francis in Tacloban, Leyte. (Photo by Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

Pope Francis in Tacloban, Leyte. (Photo by Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

When the spiritual leader of Roman Catholics the world over visits his biggest flock in Asia, expect coverage from the usually hardened and unrelenting local news media to cut slack on the bad news. Indeed, that’s what Filipinos saw and heard on their radios, TVs and devices for five days this January.

A number of enthusiastic (and at times giddy) reporters and commentators also punctuated the movements and activities of Pope Francis, who came here on both pastoral and state capacities.

“Ayan na, ayan na siya! (There, he’s coming!)” was the common response of some on the air as they annotated live images of the papal convoy as it moved to and from the Vatican mission a.k.a. the nunciature in Manila.

The aim to see Pope Francis in person landed the personal agenda of journalists, technical crews and production staff deployed to the locations in the pope’s itinerary. With cameras and smartphones in tow, their encounters showed up mainly on social media.

Also, like other Filipino Catholics who occupied the streets for the pope, some journalists themselves sought to get the pope’s attention, smile, touch or blessing—and to tell a story about the encounter. Some reporters even interrupted their live updates to shout greetings to him.

It was surely representative of the outpouring of emotion and affection in this country of 80 million Catholics that even reportedly stunned the pope. But as with the overly excited emceeing at the end of Pope Francis’s final Mass in Luneta, the on-air handling of the visit also reaps its own discussion.

The wall-to-wall coverage and program preemption was a given. A thing like this only happened in the Philippines every 10 to 20 years anyway. Add to that the immense popularity of the Argentinian pontiff, who has been a game-changer for the faith only less than two years since being elected Bishop of Rome.

Taking on the name of a saint of poverty, Pope Francis kept surprising observers by breaching the traditional confines of the papacy to embrace ordinary people. Behind the scenes, he has undertaken sweeping changes in the scandal-ridden bureaucracy of Vatican City.

Good side

With such a positive global image for one already dubbed a “rockstar” and the “people’s pope”, it was no surprise that the coverage of his Philippine trip highlighted the good side.

Of course, the visit had its mishaps, like the death of a volunteer in Tacloban after the pope’s Mass there, and heart-rending moments, like the philosophical question of a former child prostitute to the pope at a meeting with the youth. The news definitely reflected those scenes, but these did not dampen the largely festive spirit of the coverage. The impact of the reporting that came out was indeed a contrast to the provocative and controversial treatment usually seen on the nightly news. It was glowing and with some, short of fawning.

Seen another way, if it were done for any politician, the coverage would have been blasted as biased. Then again, rare are the personalities who could amass crowds without compelling them to come.

Such positivity—if it may be called such—is not unique to this papal event. Call it a five-day extended version of a Manny Pacquiao boxing match. We also see it yearly during the Traslacion of the Black Nazarene, where reports praise the risky devotion of the Filipino Catholic and reporters brave the throng to mount the anda carrying the image.

You will hardly find such stories in more secular nations like the United States. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United Kingdom in 2010, most of the complaints sent to the BBC were for “too much” or “too favorable” coverage.

Here in the Philippines, things spiritual and religious mark the calendar, impact nearly all media consumers and hardly raise eyebrows when they are celebrated on television.

A sense of reverence did characterize the months-long preparations for this event, on a scale even bigger than for the state visit of US Pres. Barack Obama in 2014. It ran parallel to arrangements for what authorities called their biggest security nightmare yet.

For many of them and many media workers, their visitor was not just any global newsmaker, but a person considered holy by millions of their countrymen.

Still, there were reminders from news bosses to take a more restrained tone to the coverage—in the words of one, to cover with “sobriety, sensitivity and dignity.” Above all, the journalists had to be well informed to begin with and to let their facts dictate their annotation, while also prioritizing the real sounds of the event.

Reactions

However, some audiences lamented the lack of depth in some instances of the coverage: the tendency to watch for the unexpected, the focus on Pope Francis’s actions and preferences over his message. This despite the pope making statements interpreted as hitting on same-sex marriage and artificial birth control, as well as corrupt politics in the Philippines. For someone who has been popularly quoted as saying, “Who am I to judge?” what, indeed, was the pope’s position on those subjects?

Others reacted to the reporting of other voices or sidelights they deemed unnecessary to the overall spirit of the pastoral visit: for instance, the rejoinders by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or LGBT community or the scene-stealing responsorial psalm reader at the Manila Cathedral Mass. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines had its own say: “More substance, please.”

Hugging children at the Meeting with the Youth in UST. (Photo by Romeo Ranoco, Reuters)

Hugging children at the Meeting with the Youth in UST. (Photo by Romeo Ranoco, Reuters)

And then there were questions that were unasked or unanswered during the duration of the event: how much of the bill were Filipinos footing for this event, what indeed happened to families and children living on the streets the pope passed through, and will that “good feeling” the country felt during those five days have any long-term effect?

If anything, Pope Francis from arrival to departure touched and rattled many aspects of Philippine society, from its ills to its potential for good. Nonetheless, foreseeing the enthusiastic greeting for him, the Pope reminded Filipino Catholics to direct their focus on Jesus Christ, whom he represented, and on the poor, whom he championed. The same would have held for journalists.

Appropriate or not, the experience of journalists encountering the pope face to face was an indirect way for those who had no chance to know what it was like. It also showed that media people were people and–for some–Catholics too. More importantly over the actual encounter though was how it was told.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in Manila that the pope considered journalists as “collaborators in spreading the good news,” with a “very important mission to spread the message.”

They may have been expected to report only the good side, and the overall feel of the coverage may have turned out that way. But journalists also have an obligation to report the proverbial other side–the neglected angles, the unpopular sentiments and even relevant facets that could sound contrary to the supposed “spirit” of the event. All nevertheless with the context to understand these.

Interviewing an early comer to the papal mass in Luneta. (Courtesy of Jeck Batallones)

Interviewing an early comer to the papal mass in Luneta. (Courtesy of Jeck Batallones)

One aspect of this episode that the pope might have appreciated more was reporting on the stories of the ordinary Filipinos who came to be part of history–or who were prevented from being part of it. While television zoomed the lens on the few who had personal contact with the pope, social media streamed snapshots and quotes of groups and individuals that endured the hassle and worsening weather just for a glimpse of him.

And beyond one’s own story or even that of the pope, it was still a bigger but fulfilling challenge to tell the tales of the people loved by the “Pope of the Peripheries”.

(With special thanks to Karla Thea Omelan and Carolyn Bonquin)

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