Tell (Election) Stories That Matter, Media Urged

Less than three months from now, the electorate will troop to their respective polling precincts to cast their votes for the candidates of their choice for specific national and local elective posts — from the President down to the town councillors.

As the nation inches its way to the conduct of the elections on May 9, most candidates are leaving no stone unturned to ensure their victory at the polls.

Such zeal is matched by media frenzy for horserace coverage, pitting candidates as though this political exercise were a sporting event where opponents are eyeing nothing less than the top prize.

A number of these political aspirants go to the extent of engaging the services of survey firms to gauge the acceptability of their candidacy to the public, notwithstanding the enormous costs involved.

Aided by their strategists, campaign managers and media handlers, these candidates use the results of their commissioned surveys — if favorable to them — to promote their political ambition.

Media’s tendency toward horserace reporting — as seen in how public opinion survey results are being reported — is nowhere more evident than during elections.

The Philippine Press Institute (PPI), as the country’s national association of newspapers, envisions a society where the electorate can confidently rely on the press to provide meaningful and incisive election coverage — one that breaks away from horserace reporting, highlighting who’s leading and lagging behind in public opinion polls .

Toward this end and realizing the importance of helping the voting public discern the character, merit, and accomplishments of those courting their votes, the PPI has embarked on a series of seminar-workshops aimed at enabling its member-publications understand how public opinion surveys are conducted and how to report them to the best interest of the electorate, .

The PPI, in partnership with the Marketing and Opinion Research Society of the Philippines (MORES), and with funding from Nickel Asia Corporation, gathered 18 journalists from Luzon to attend the seminar-workshop dubbed “Opinion Polls and Elections: Making Media Coverage Count” held from February 10 to February 12 in Baguio City.

“Through these workshops, we hope to contribute to raising public discourse on many important and relevant issues before and after elections,” said PPI Executive Director Ariel Sebellino.

Tess Bacalla, PPI training director, addressed the issue of “unreported and under-reported” stories during elections. She noted that the media generally tend to simply get the reaction of candidates on certain issues or events instead of delving deeply into their positions — or lack of them — on such issues alongside their track records.

She said that instead of just focusing on how candidates are performing in public opinion polls, the media should also probe more substantive issues that are getting little attention, or none at all.

“Are we measuring up to our noble calling as journalists, making sure the public is informed (about specific issues) and that we are able to help them make intelligent choices (through the quality of our reporting)?” she asked.

Where public opinion surveys are concerned, she said the media must understand the basic standards for reporting them and pursue issue-based reporting using data from these polls.

Bacalla added that the media should not be merely looking for soundbites from candidates, or getting all sides of an issue.

The media must be careful not to play into certain political agendas, especially if these run counter to public interests, said Bacalla during her session titled “Measuring Up: Digging Out Unreported/Underreported Stories.” She also exhorted the participants to proactively look for stories that bring important issues to the fore and that help elevate the level of public discourse in the country. Among others, look for stories behind the statistics shown in poll results, she urged them.

Nicco de Jesus, MORES president, expressed hoped that the seminar participants would learn and use the tools for scrutinizing opinion poll results to avoid falling prey to the agendas of those who commissioned the survey, including the candidates.

In his session titled “Opinion Polls and Democracy: Plus or Minus,” and “Tracking Surveys: Beyond Election,” De Jesus cited three elements that make surveys trusted: representative, unbiased, and verifiable. “All surveys are not valid unless trusted,” he said.

Highlighting the value of surveys to democracy, he said they provide feedback, which decision makers use as basis for action.

“Who uses the surveys? There is the decision-maker at the end of the line. That person will use that information to decide on something very important,” he said.

“Public opinion is a critical force in transforming and shaping society,” De Jesus said, quoting the World Association for Public Opinion Research.

In evaluating opinion polls, the media must consider the following to vet or qualify survey results: 1) what was the question asked? 2) which research agency conducted the poll? 3) what is the universe or who are individuals represented in the survey? 4) what is the geographic coverage or sample size? 5) what is the survey period? 6) who did not respond to the survey? 7) what was the sampling method used? 8) what was interview method used (e.g., face to face); 9) who funded or commissioned the survey? and 10) what was the margin of error (MOE).

At the end of his session, De Jesus ask the participants, divided into groups of four, to assess a published report on survey results using the template or checklist he presented.

In the presentation of their outputs, all groups noted the inadequacy of information presented in the published articles, such as the specific question asked in the survey and the interview method used.

Gang Badoy Capati, founder and executive director of Rock Ed Philippines, handled the topic “Polimetrics: Sizing Up the Candidates” where she presented the scorecard she and her team are in the process of developing for assessing the accomplishments of politicians vis-à-vis their campaign promises.

Political metrics, or simply polimetrics, is an online, data-driven tool for tracking public officials’ performance.

“It is important to know your candidates, including your local leaders, even your barangay tanod (community security and peace personnel), city mayor, councillors.

Bakit tayo ganito bumoto?” asked Capati, lamenting the tendency of some Filipinos to vote based on personal factors such as being on the receiving end of some officials’ largesse.

“Why not merit-based?” she asked.

Still another resource speaker, Rachel E. Khan, associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, tackled “Election Coverage: Ethical Issues and Challenges.”

Khan said that if a journalist is coming up with an expose against a certain politician during election period, who happened to be a political rival of his or her relative, it would be better that he or she allows a colleague to pursue the story instead.

“Even if the expose is true, if that politician can point out in court,’Eh, pinsan ‘yan ng kalaban ko eh,’ it will be very hard to prove that you are objective,” she said. It is important to ensure that no one can impute malice to you on the basis of your story, said Khan.

PPI Chairman Jesus Dureza also gave a brief report on his recent trip to Paris as the organization’s representative to a UNESCO forum on safety and protection of journalists worldwide.

Another highlight of the seminar was his announcement of the inclusion of a special category, Best in Election Reporting, in the next round of the Civic Journalism Community Press Awards, which will be held during the annual PPI conference, slated for June this year.

This is in recognition of outstanding stories about elections, he said, adding there will be cash prizes. He encouraged the seminar participants and PPI members to submit their stories to PPI.

The Luzon leg of the seminar-workshop held in Baguio also coincided with the launch of the newly reformatted PPI website.

Following the conclusion of the seminar-workshop in Baguio on February 12, PPI conducted a scholastic forum on public polls and elections, dubbed “Making Media Coverage Count”, at the University of the Cordilleras (UC).

Dureza, Bacalla, and De Jesus served as resource persons and panelists, with Sebellino as moderator.

More than 200 students from UC, Saint Louis University, University of Benguet, King’s College of the Philippines, Colegio de Dagupan, University of the Philippines-Baguio, and Urdaneta City University, attended the event.

Source: Philippine Press Institute