PROVIDING CONTEXT is not a strong suit of the dominant media,* whether in the form of a few paragraphs recalling the background of events, a sidebar, or an entire article recalling the history of the public issues they report on. Context is often glaringly absent even in reports on the most complex and publicly-relevant events and issues.
Providing the context of the news is universally understood as a necessary component of the journalistic responsibility of truth-telling. The five Ws and the H (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How) can answer only the immediate questions media readers, viewers and listeners ask about an event, but cannot provide the history or background that can make it understandable. Context serves not only the individual need to understand the complex events and issues that at the personal level can make the difference between ignorance and knowledge; it is also crucial to the shaping of the informed public opinion crucial to the decision-making duty of citizens in a democracy.
The lessons every generation learns it also has to pass on to the next if only for the sake of developing the collective awareness a society needs to arrive at a consensus on the issues that concern it, and to move forward. While the responsibility of making sense of their experience and imparting the lessons they’ve learned from it is primarily that of the antecedents of the men and women upon whom the shaping of the future depends, in societies in crisis that duty is increasingly being neglected, as the stresses of living divide and even break up families, and arriving at any consensus on the meaning of the past becomes more and more difficult.
That burden is increasingly being thrust on the schools and the media, on which now depend the transmission of the knowledge and insights of past generations. The failure of both institutions—the schools are arguably even more deficient in imparting the lessons of history to the children and youth under their tutelage—has resulted in the making of a population largely ignorant of the lessons the experience of past generations can teach. No issue is ever really settled in the Philippine public sphere: in what is supposed to be a democracy, practically the same arguments raised years earlier are raised for or against public policy. But what‘s even worse is the lack of debate and discussion on matters of vital public interest.
Illustrative is the absence of public discussion over the Aquino administration policy of “inviting” US troops to use Philippine bases on a “temporary” basis. The terms in which the policy is being described and framed seek to avoid a clash with the Constitutional prohibition on foreign military bases and the presence of foreign troops in Philippine territory.
The linguistic legerdemain aside—the “invitation” is being issued in the context of the US “pivot” to Asia, while the supposedly temporary presence of US troops has been going on for well over a decade—the policy has vast implications on Philippine sovereignty, politics and society. Despite its expected and other possible impacts, when it was first proposed the dominant press provided neither the historical nor current context that would have provoked public debate on the basis of the lessons the country learned from the 90 years during which foreign troops were based in several US military installations in the Philippines.
Only in the past few days has some of these implications found space in one broadsheet. In an attempt to put in context the refusal of the Senate to approve a treaty extending the lease on US bases in 1990, and to provide a background on the deployment of US troops in Philippine bases, the Philippine Daily Inquirer looked into the possible resurgence of prostitution in and around the “facilities” where US troops would be based. The networks have so far not bothered to recall history and the lessons citizens may learn from it.
While some senators are likely to question the constitutionality of the Aquino administration “invitation” to US troops and its coyly deceptive description of their presence in Philippine territory as “temporary,” most citizens are likely to ask what the fuss is all about. It’s not a Senate debate over the Aquino policy that’s the danger, but the lack of public discussion over an issue that can have far-reaching consequences on Filipino lives. For that appalling state much of the blame must be laid on the dominant media.###
*Mislabeled the mainstream, corporate media dominate the Philippine press and media landscape in terms of size and reach, but it is the alternative press, with its over a hundred years of history and relevance—from La Solidaridad, Kalayaan and El Renacimiento to We Forum, Veritas and Bulatlat– that constitutes the mainstream tradition in Philippine media.