Monday, May 2, 2011

When some TV journalists exercise their vaunted press freedom too far

I know only too well that freedom of speech is a hallmark of a robust and vibrant democracy, and we are most fortunate that our country’s mass media currently enjoy the trappings of this freedom to a remarkably high degree. I must say, however, that whether they are conscious of it or not, some of our national TV networks have lately been carrying this freedom of expression too far. A recent case in point is their unbridled use of the online social media facilities of Facebook and Twitter to stream in raw opinions onscreen during TV programs or interviews on controversial topics.

Of course there’s value and virtue in quickly getting the public pulse on matters of great public interest, but I think it’s clear that whether expressed in English or in the lingua franca, many of the opinions drawn in by those TV programs under these circumstances are grossly uninformed, misleading, irresponsible, systematically manipulative, or downright wacky—and oftentimes expressed in grammatically fractured and convoluted language as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that because of the scatterbrain character of many of these online postings or tweets, by no means could they ever be a reliable and accurate measure of public opinion. (I remember that in the early days of TV broadcasting, a sharp mind in the U.S. media—if I remember right, he was Walter Lippmann—sagely observed that one of the serious drawbacks of broadcast TV is its power to widely disseminate and validate uninformed opinion.)

So, in the same way that the print media are able to routinely edit the opinions they print on their pages, couldn’t the TV programs at least find some way of intermediating all that instant feedback to ensure that only the sensible and responsible ones—no matter how contrarian or strongly worded—are streamed onscreen? I think it would greatly raise the quality of public discourse if the broadcast media can do this.

The other matter that I’d like to take up here is the lack of basic courtesy and decorum among some TV investigative journalists when they do face-to-face or telephone interviews in the course of their TV programs. These investigative journalists, live and onscreen, have this tendency to needle and browbeat their respondents to admit culpability in a supposed crime or misdemeanor that they are working to establish within the time frame of the TV program itself. But really now, even if guilty or rotten to the core, who in his right mind would admit culpability on TV for all the world to see? And isn’t it axiomatic that in our democratic society, the accused is entitled to due process and is presumed innocent until proven guilty? I’m afraid that these niceties are sometimes lost to some of these investigative journalists. In one such TV program I watched recently, in fact, the investigative journalist acted and used language that made it unmistakable that he thought himself the arresting police officer, prosecutor, legal counsel, judge, and executioner all rolled into one.      

Five years ago, in my English-usage column in The Manila Times, I expressed similar misgivings about the apparent lack of courtesy and decorum among some TV news-and-talk-show hosts when dealing with their respondents or guests. Even with the growing use of the online social media by the national TV networks to buttress their programming, I believe that my thoughts in those pre-Facebook and Twitter days about improper language on TV remain very much relevant today. I am therefore posting that essay of mine, retitled here as “The perils of language misuse during live TV interviews,” in my blog this week. (May 1, 2011)

The perils of language misuse during live TV interviews

I think one of the most dreadful aspects of live electronic journalism is being asked to answer a badly phrased and impertinent question over the telephone for all the broadcast audience to hear.
Such a question was posed by news-and-talk-show host to a national treasury official during a network TV broadcast several days ago. The subject was the headline story in most of the day’s newspapers that the treasury official had certified the availability of funds for a plebiscite on the proposed Charter change. The question asked him was this: “How true is it that you had certified the availability of funds for a referendum on Charter change?”

That question struck me not only as semantically wrong but also insolent, accusing, and offensive from a journalistic standpoint. It’s a question that a self-respecting individual shouldn’t really answer, or perhaps correct and put in better perspective first before dignifying it with an answer. This rarely happens in practice, however. The respondent often ends up muddling through with a silly answer (‘That’s a half truth!”, “Absolutely true!”, “Perfectly true!”) rather than risk being looked upon as uncooperative, evasive, or tricky by the broadcast audience.

We know that a statement is either true or false in the sense of being a “fact” or having “the property of being in accord with fact or reality,” and that the “truth” can’t be measured by an answer to such a qualitative question as “How true is it?” Only in the most informal sense, as in gossip or trivial conversations (which a TV interview on matters of national importance is not), can this frivolous manner of “measuring” the truth be used. From both the usage and journalistic standpoints, therefore, that TV host’s question about the budget official’s reported pronouncement was terribly inappropriate.

The semantically correct way of phrasing that question is, of course, this: “Is it true that you had certified the availability of funds for a referendum on charter change?” This is a question that can be answered truthfully with either a “Yes” or a “No,” and people can answer it without being made to feel that their honesty and integrity are under question.

But what seems to me an even more serious matter is the sense of haughtiness and contempt conveyed by TV broadcast people when they ask questions of this sort. In this particular instance, the TV anchor already knew that the budget official had indeed made that pronouncement. Before asking him the question, in fact, she had just finished a live interview of people who were condemning that pronouncement. So, it can reasonably be asked, how could she all so suddenly backtrack and ask the treasury official how true it was that he had made that statement in the first place?

I submit that a better prepared and more English-savvy TV journalist would have avoided asking that kind of question at all. A much better and non-confrontational opening to that telephone interview would have been a simple statement that could put the subject in perspective for both the respondent and the broadcast audience: “Mr. So-and-So, you were reported as having certified the availability of funds for a plebiscite on the proposed charter change. Can you please tell us precisely where the funds will be coming from? Will be fund releases for that purpose be legal?” This is the sort of thing that clarifies rather than muddles up matters.

I think that since their jobs are deeply imbued with the public interest, TV news-and-talk-show hosts should closely watch their language on camera and avoid being carried away so often by their personal biases and political leanings. The least they can do is to be objective, fair, and civil in treating their respondents. This way, they will be protecting not only their own credibility and integrity as TV journalists but also that of the broadcast media as a whole. (April 10, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 10, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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