Among the first things a journalism student learns are the criteria that decide what to report, what to publish, and how to present it — that is, what makes an event, or whatever else, news. Known as “news values,” relevance, prominence, timeliness, proximity, and human interest are the conventional standards journalists are supposed to apply in determining whether something should be reported or not.
Although relevance (the significance of an event to a large number of people) is a primary news value, prominence — the involvement in an event or issue of someone famous or well-known — often takes first place in deciding what to report, thus the media focus on government officials, the well-connected, and celebrities.
Prominence explains why Presidents of the Philippines and other officials of government are always in the news media, whether in print, radio, television, or online. But it is also assumed that whatever the head of State says and does are of public interest and relevance, and so are the acts and declarations of his or her officials, especially members of the Cabinet. Their associates, families and kin are also the focus of media attention because of their links to the powerful.
The same news value of prominence makes what actors and other celebrities are doing or saying also the stuff of the news columns, although usually only in such special media sections or segments as entertainment and sports. But they can also make the front pages or the first minutes of broadcast news should they say or do something relevant to the lives of the citizenry.
A celebrity who is running for public office and who weighs in on a public issue can and usually does find himself on the front pages and the six o’clock news. In a number of instances, their media presence has proven crucial to the election of actors and/or their wives, children and other kin as town mayors, provincial governors, and even as president.
Prominence as a news value has been criticized for its emphasis on the doings and statements of the powerful and well-known to the exclusion of ordinary folk, who may have something to say about a public issue or who are doing something about it.
Additionally, however, in a country where the results of elections are too often decided not only by money and intimidation but also by name recall, or one’s names’ being familiar enough to voters to be remembered come Election Day, the focus on the powerful and well-known also endows them with a distinct advantage when they or their kin and associates run for public office. These privileged creatures do not even have to say anything important or even intelligent, or to have a platform of government, only that they keep media attention enough to be in the news by saying or doing this or that.
With the 2022 elections only a scant eight months away, and despite the advantages that the news conventions have endowed them with, many of the presumptive candidates for public office have also launched public relations campaigns to get even more media mileage to keep their names in the public mind, not only through advertising but also through their utterances and antics that in too many instances find space and time in the media.
Much of the media are giving them what they want, either unwittingly or in full awareness of what they’re doing.
The reporting on the I-will-run-I-won’t-run declarations of President Rodrigo Duterte, and on the supposed discord between him and his daughter Sara are prime examples of how the conventions of news reporting are helping keep Mr. Duterte and his camp in the public mind.
So are the frequent reports on Duterte confidant “Bong” Go, who’s supposed to be running for President in 2022 (he could still withdraw in favor of Sara Duterte) with Mr. Duterte as his running mate. Because of his Duterte connection rather than his performance as senator, Go has often been in the news, whether while lunching with his principal, or distributing relief goods to typhoon and flood victims. Despite the prohibition on campaigning before the official campaign period, he is getting even more time and space in media with his nomination as the PDP-Laban standard bearer.
Some of the other declared candidates for the two highest elective positions in government are also doing their all to keep their names in the public sphere. Senator Panfilo Lacson and Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who’ve been Duterte enablers and allies since 2016, are, for example, reinventing themselves as reformists and Duterte critics, and as a result are getting more media mileage than before they announced their candidacies.
But the candidate who’s far ahead of everyone else in media exposure is boxer-cum-Senator “Manny” Pacquiao. Already a media and national celebrity, Pacquiao was elected senator in 2019 with the help of, among other factors, his constant media presence.
Once in the Senate, media attention on Pacquiao became even more pronounced, with print, television, radio, and online news sites tirelessly quoting his every statement on public issues, particularly his death penalty advocacy. While the media did note his perennial absences from Senate sessions, even that was in his favor; bad publicity is still publicity. Media attention intensified even further when Mr. Duterte mentioned him as one of his possible successors, and as he declared on several occasions this year his ambitions for the Presidency.
Pacquiao’s decision to return to the boxing ring last August earned him even more media dividends. His loss to Cuba’s Yordenis Ugas was widely reported, analyzed and commented on in the prime-time newscasts. He had also been followed by the media while he was training for the fight and was interviewed before and after it took place.
His criticism of the Duterte failure to defend Philippine sovereignty against Chinese incursions in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the West Philippine Sea and the corruption that has metastasized in the bureaucracy had earlier kept him in the public eye through the media’s reporting on his newfound insights into the regime that he had previously approved of.
More media attention followed in the aftermath of his fight with Ugas. One example of the kind of boost his candidacy is getting is a recent interview over ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol after his loss to the Cuban boxer.
It was not about the fight but was mostly about his 2022 political plans, as well as his views on Mr. Duterte’s running for Vice-President and his team-up with Go. Although Pacquiao did not confirm his intention to run for President, he did announce a platform of a sort: he would fight corruption; foster economic growth and development; provide employment, housing, and sustainable livelihood; improve healthcare services; and develop agriculture.
It is not only the media’s reporting on Pacquiao but also their focus on other presumptive candidates that is enabling them to advance their political interests long before the official campaign period which starts in February 2022.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has ruled that despite the prohibition against “premature campaigning” in the Omnibus Election Code, even a declared candidate cannot be held liable for it unless he or she has filed a Certificate of Candidacy.
Granted its absurdity, that ruling is only part of the problem. The larger part is most of the media’s contributing to the politicians’ campaign for maximum public exposure through their accustomed and uncritical adherence to the news convention of prominence — and hardly anything else.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).